Today, we are taking a look at a woman whose husband we know well. Frederick Douglass is well-known but his first wife is not. For the sake of time, I am combining sources from various articles since I have not had the chance to put something together for you this week. Enjoy.
Frederick and Anna met in 1838, when he still went by the surname Bailey and she by Murray. The daughter of enslaved parents in rural Maryland around 1813, Anna was the first of her siblings to be born free after her parents were manumitted (set free). She lived with her parents until the age of 17, at which point she headed for Baltimore and found work as a domestic helper. Over the years she managed to earn and save money; the vibrant community of more than 17,000 free blacks in the Maryland city organized black churches and schools despite repressive laws restricting their freedoms. When she met Frederick—historians disagree on the when and where their acquaintance occurred, but it may have been in attending the same church—she was financially prepared to start a life with him. But first, he needed freedom.
By borrowing a freedman’s protection certificate from a friend and wearing the disguise of a sailor sewn by Anna, Frederick made his way to New York City by train (possibly spending Anna’s money to buy the ticket, says historian Leigh Fought). Once there, he sent for Anna and they were married in the home of abolitionist David Ruggles. According to Rosetta, Anna brought nearly everything the couple needed to begin their life together: a feather bed with pillows and linens; dishes with cutlery; and a full trunk of clothing for herself.
In 1837, Frederick met a free Black woman, Anna Murray, who was born in 1813. Her parents had been freed before she was born, and Anna worked as a laundress and a housekeeper. Anna used her savings and sold a bed to pay for train tickets for Frederick, which he used to escape to freedom. She also sewed a sailor outfit for him, which he wore as a disguise. Fredrick had tried to escape before, but it was not until Anna helped him that he escaped successfully.
Once Frederick got to New York, Anna joined him and they married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. They had five children together. When they moved to Rochester, New York, she turned their home into an Underground Railroad stop, providing shelter for runaway slaves en route to Canada.
As Frederick became more involved in activism, their relationship became more strained. Anna could barely read and write, and felt out of place among Frederick’s friends. His friends, most of whom were highly educated and intellectual, openly looked down on Anna (to his credit, he vigorously defended her against any who suggested she was not a worthy wife). Anna enjoyed being part of the Black community in New Bedford, but in 1847 Frederick moved the family, and as his circle of friends widened, hers diminished. Anna was also tormented by rumors that Frederick had affairs during his many travels. On two occasions, Frederick had women he was rumored to be sleeping with move into Anna’s house, causing controversy between the couple and within Frederick’s political community.
While Frederick began his climb as an abolitionist orator, Anna cared for their children, born between 1839 and 1849: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Charles, and Annie. In 1847, they moved to Rochester, New York, where Frederick began publishing his newspaper, the North Star. The gulf between Anna and Frederick widened over the years; she could barely read and write and was rarely a part of his activist life and growing circle of prominent white and black abolitionist colleagues. After the death of their youngest child, Annie, in 1860, Anna’s health steadily deteriorated. She died on August 4, 1882 at their home, Cedar Hill, across from Washington, D.C. She was carried back to Rochester, New York, where she was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.
– Source: The Black Past Remembered
One year after Anna’s death, Frederick remarried. His second wife was Helen Pitts. She was born in 1838. Her parents were abolitionists, and she was an ardent abolitionist and suffragette. In 1880, her family moved next door to the Douglass family, and Helen assisted Frederick with his work. She also worked as a clerk and co-edited a women’s rights magazine.
Their marriage was quite a scandal. Helen was white and twenty years younger than Frederick. His children felt the marriage disrespected their mother. Frederick and Helen’s friends were shocked because they felt the marriage was too sudden and because they were worried about the race and age differences. Helen’s family cut off contact with her altogether, and their local society was appalled that a black man and white woman were married at all.
Helen Pitts’ response: “Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”
Frederick’s response: “This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father.”
EC thoughts: I feel kind of sad for Anna and I can’t help but to wonder why Frederick, intelligent as he was, did not teach her to read and write. Did she not want to learn? Or did he not want to teach her? We can only speculate.