Monday, February 3, 2014

Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage

The Cheerio's commercial featuring an interracial family was back during last night's Super Bowl.  When the family made its debut last year, it drew both praise and prejudice from the public, although  more of the former than the latter.  That was 2013. So what do you suppose the reaction to an interracial couple would've been over a century ago? Today I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one. 


February marks Black History Month, and one of the most influential individuals in Black history, as well as American history in general, is Frederick Douglass. Douglass, who had no accurate knowledge of his age or birth date, chose to celebrate it on February 14. Also, he estimated the year of his birth to be 1818.

For those unfamiliar with Frederick Douglass, here's a brief summary from Wikipedia:

Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, c. February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.  

Frederick Douglass is indeed a fascinating and heroic figure in American history. To read more click here

Douglass was married to Anna Murray, a black woman, for forty-four years (1838-1882).  After she died from complications due to second a stroke, Douglass married again--this time however, his wife was white! 

According to Wikipedia:

In 1884, Douglass married again, to Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. Pitts was the daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr., an abolitionist colleague and friend of Douglass. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College (then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary), she worked on a radical feminist publication named Alpha while living in Washington, D.C. The couple faced a storm of controversy with their marriage, since Pitts was both white and nearly 20 years younger than Douglass. 

... Douglass (a "child of the master") responded to the criticisms by saying that his first marriage had been to someone the color of his mother, and his second to someone the color of his father.
Frederick & Helen Douglass, seated, and
Helen's sister Eva, standing

A commentary from Syracuse.com written by Leigh Fought of Le Moyne College says this regarding the marriage:

...On Jan. 24, 1884, 60-year old Frederick Douglass and 46-year-old Helen Pitts defied the expectations of their families and Washington society by joining in interracial matrimony.


Neither black nor white communities offered many congratulations.

The Washington Grit called the marriage “a national calamity” and “the mistake of his life.” Others considered his choice to be that of a dotty, old man who had rejected his race. The groom’s children never hid their disdain for his new wife, believing the marriage betrayed their late mother, Anna, who was black. His daughter-in-law even sued him. The bride’s sisters and mothers embraced her new husband, but her father and uncle never accepted that a black man they once admired had joined the family. One of her old classmates at Mt. Holyoke simply exclaimed, “How could she?”

True friends, on the other hand, noted that the marriage was not only one of affection but also one that emerged from their principles. Another old classmate insisted that Helen “was true to her convictions to the last,” while a reporter for the IndianapolisLeader pointed out, “Mr. Douglass has simply put into practice the theories of his life.” Douglass himself demanded, “What business has the world with the color of my wife?”

Seems that Frederick Douglass and his new wife received both praise and prejudice, as well!  Although I must add, more of the latter than the former that time around. 

Were you aware of Frederick Douglass' interracial marriage? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

8 comments:

shelly said...

I've never heard of either of these people. Good post!

Hugs and chocolate!

Norma Beishir said...

I've never heard of them, either. Thanks, Maria--we usually learn something new when we visit your blog!

Jennette Marie Powell said...

When that first Cheerios commercial came out, my daughter and I couldn't believe it was even an issue! I had not heard about Frederick Douglass' second wife. Not surprising that it was an issue then.

William Kendall said...

I know much of Douglass, one of the most important American figures of the 19th century, as far as I'm concerned. I think because of his status as a figure of history, that overshadows so much of the other people in his life.

Hilary said...

I never heard of these people either… but isn't it sad how then and now the same reaction occurred - praise & prejudice? I would think we would be over the prejudice part already…. one day maybe

Charmaine T. Davis, author said...

Never knew that Frederick Douglass married a white woman.

Incidentally, my dad's first two names are Frederick Douglas and my mom's name is Helen.

Maria McKenzie said...

@ShellY: Thanks, Shelly!

@Norma: Thanks, Norma! Your history lesson for the day;).

@Jennette: I know, I was surprised that in 2014, folks would express prejudice like that. It was expeted in Douglass' day.

@William: You're right! There are so amny outstanding things to know about him, the others in his life are looked over.

@Hilary: Hi Hilary, thanks for stopping by! Yup, we can only hope.

@Charmaine: Hi Charmaine, thanks for visiting! I only learned recently about his second wife. Funny coincidence about your mom and dad!

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