Monday, February 11, 2019

Frederick Douglass and Interracial Marriage


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 and 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! 

Originally posted 2/3/14

3 comments:

William Kendall said...

I was familiar, yes, though I hadn't heard his response to the criticism.

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Maria McKenzie said...

@William: They seem to have gotten criticism from both sides:(.

@Ana: Nothing like a strong marriage!