Women Who Helped Frederick Washington Bailey Become Frederick Douglass


Black History Month Special

черный месяц истории – Антирабовладельческая деятельность Фредерика Дугласа


Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, c. February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement from Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writings. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Even many Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.

Even before President Obama, Douglass became the first African American nominated for vice president of the United States as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. Nominated without his knowledge or consent, Douglass never campaigned. Nonetheless, his nomination marked the first time that an African American appeared on a presidential ballot.

Frederick Douglass owes his great achievement to many people especially 4 women who helped Frederick Bailey become Frederick Douglass.

Anna Murray DouglassAnna Murray, A Devoted Wife


Anna Murray, the first woman Frederick Douglass gave his heart. In return she sympathized with him and devoted all her energies to assist him. Anna was the one who helped Douglass escape slavery. She had lived with the Wells family in Baltimore, Maryland so long as a housekeeper and having been able to save the greater part of her earnings was willing to share with the man she loved that he might gain the freedom he yearned to possess. Her courage, her sympathy as the start was the mainspring that supported the career of Frederick Douglass.

Anna Murray-Douglass, Frederick’s wife, was somewhat older than Frederick and illiterate, was also ill much of the time.  She shared little of her husband’s intellect or interests, and seemed unable to cope with the large household.

Murray-Douglass received little mention in Douglass’s autobiographies, as if Douglass had made his life story a sort of political diorama in which she had no role. His long absences from home, and her feeling that as a relatively uneducated woman she did not fit in with the social circles Douglass was now moving in, led to a degree of estrangement between them that was in marked contrast to their earlier closeness. Hurt by her husband’s liaisons with other women, she nevertheless remained loyal to Douglass’s public role; her daughter Rosetta reminded those who admired her father that his “was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”

Anna Murray-Douglass was often in poor health. She died of a stroke in 1882 at the family home in Washington D.C.

Julia Griffiths, A Fundraiser Genius


The two met in London, England, during Douglass’ tour of the British Isles in 1845-47.  In 1849, Julia Griffiths joined Douglass in Rochester, New York, and edited, published and promoted his work. She was one of six founding members of the influential Rochester Anti-Slavery Society. She is most noted for publishing Autographs for Freedom, an anthology of anti-slavery literature.

1851, Griffiths helped put the “North Star”s’ finances in order.

By March, 1852, the Society had grown to nineteen members, when they held the first of their Festivals, or bazaars. In these events, held annually for over a decade, the women of the Society raised money through the sale of items made locally or contributed by other anti-slavery societies as far away as Britain, and through gate receipts for lectures by Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, or other activists held in the Corinthian Hall. The first Festival was advertised in newspapers as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and by all accounts, it was a rousing success, netting over $250.

Colleagues in British antislavery societies provided an important and regular source of funds through bazaars held on behalf of the Rochester Society. By the late 1850s, the annual receipts of the Society surpassed $1,500.

In 1854, there were unfounded accusations that Douglass and Griffiths engaged in infidelity. Griffiths returned to England in 1855, where she continued to organize ladies’ anti-slavery societies, and write columns for Douglass’s newspapers.

assing_ottilieOttilie Assing, A Passionate Abolitionist


Douglass receives a letter from Ottilie Assing, a German journalist for the prestigious German newspaper Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser (Morning Journal for Educated Readers) requesting an interview with him. She traveled to Rochester, New York where Douglass lived in 1856 to interview him. Assing decided to come to America to try whether she could introduce her readers to highly educated African Americans, a field which German writers have totally neglected. Everybody could write about black misery, and so many did that readers were bored. She would try to focus on individual black achievement, on the heroes of the race on the exceptional. She truly believed “The blacks are not biologically inferior; they are victims of white racism. “

Assing spent the next 22 summers with the Douglass family, working on articles, the translation project, and tutoring his children.

Lac_supérieur_bois_de_boulogneAssing was a passionate abolitionist, was politically astute, and contributed a great deal to Douglass’ work. The affair was never confined to the domestic sphere, and it was never a secret. For most of their 26 year friendship, when apart, Frederick and Ottilie weekly wrote each other. Assing was confident that, upon Anna’s death, Douglass would marry her. Oh, bitter news! He wed another woman – white, bright and 20 years his junior. Heartbroken and ill with breast cancer, Assing walked into a park Lac inférieur, Bois de Boulogne in Paris, opened a tiny vial and swallowed the potassium cyanide within. Still Ottilie left Frederick Douglass as the sole heir in her will.

 Helen PittsHelen Pitts, A Woman Who Helped Create Frederick Douglass’s Historic House


Helen Pitts was born in Honeoye, not far from Rochester, New York. Graduated from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now mount Holyoke College) in 1859 and she taught at the Hampton Institute know for training black educators. Moving to Washington D.C. and lived next door to Douglass’ home, Cedar Hill. Helen met Douglass not by chance. It was meant to be.

“Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color. “ Pitts said.

In 1882, Douglass hired Helen as a clerk in the office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, to which he had just been assigned. Because he was writing his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and was often lecturing, Helen aided him frequently in his work.

Douglass’ first wife, Anna Murray-Douglass, died on August 4, 1882. After a year of depression, Douglass married Helen on January 24, 1884.

Douglass and Pitts remained married until his death 11 years later. On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Shortly after returning home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.

Frederick_Douglass_HouseDouglass’ will left Cedar Hill to Helen, but it lacked the number of witnesses needed in bequests of real estate and was ruled invalid. Helen suggested to his children and their spouses that they agree to set Cedar Hill apart as a memorial to their father and deed it to a board of trustees. The children declined, insisting that the estate be sold and the money divided among all the heirs.

With borrowed money, Helen bought the property, and then devoted the rest of her life to planning and establishing the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association.

After Helen’s death, the National Association of Colored Women led by Mary B. Talbert of Buffalo, New York, raised funds to buy Cedar Hill. Administered by the National Park Service, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Home conducts tours to inform visitors of Douglass’ contributions to freedom.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

1411 W St SE, Washington, DC 20020

Free Admission


One response to “Women Who Helped Frederick Washington Bailey Become Frederick Douglass

  1. Great post. I have done some research on this as well. And it is a fascinating story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s