Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought, at the San Francisco Public Library

I just finished this book about Frederick Douglass by scholar Leigh Fought. I’m at the library right now, about to turn it back in, and have that feeling of afterglow which follows reading a fascinating story while gaining much deeper understanding of a subject that’s long inspired me.

Not only did I get to know the character and work of Douglass much better, his struggles, triumphs, mistakes, virtues, flaws, and motivations, I learned about the ways in which women shaped his life and ideas and made his work possible. I had uncovered pieces of this larger story when following his life and ideas last year, but Fought’s work tells this larger story fully and compellingly and then some. This not only a book about these personalities and how they met, fell in love, collaborated, clashed, helped, betrayed, and so on, but it’s about the real human side behind the various social movements Douglass and the women in his life were a part of. And for many, still a part of, through their memory and influence. It’s about the antislavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movements, the worker’s rights movement, the Civil War, the formation of the Republican Party as a free soil, pro-Union party and its after-war (what I consider) devolution into the economy-above-all party, and many other potent movements shaping and reshaping American society.

I very highly recommend this book, and think you’ll love it as I do.


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The “Woman’s Rights” Man: A New Book on Women in Frederick Douglass’s World, by Ibram X. Kendi

Left: Leigh Fought, image Le Moyne College; right, Anna Douglass, image Library of Congress

The author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass is Leigh Fought. Professor Fought is an associate professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She was an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence at the Frederick Douglass Papers, published by Yale University Press in 2009. Her previous books includes Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa McCord (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town (History Press, 2006). Professor Fought earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Houston and a Master of Library Science degree from Simmons College in Boston.

In his extensive writings, Frederick Douglass revealed little about his private life. His famous autobiographies present him overcoming unimaginable trials to gain his freedom and establish his identity—all in service to his public role as an abolitionist. But in both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. The great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”

In this well-researched and richly textured book, Leigh Fought gives us a fascinating new view into the life and times of one our most famous and revered figures: Frederick Douglass. As he freely acknowledged, women helped make Douglass the man he became. So we, too, are in debt to the women whose stories come so vividly alive in these pages.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principle findings or arguments of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

Leigh Fought: Frederick Douglass would not have become one of the greatest black activists of the nineteenth century without the work of women. This was not the cliché “behind every great man is a woman.” Women played a central role in his intellectual development, his independence as a man and activist, his economic well-being, his challenge to racial stereotypes and prohibitions, and the persistence of his place in history.

When I started this project, I was simply interested in finding more about all of these women who seemed as fascinated by Douglass as I was, except that they actually knew him. I also thought that the project would be synthetic. As it turned out, others had expressed little curiosity about most of the women themselves, with the exception of those women who merited their own biographies. Then, as I began to reconstruct the lives of the women from original research in order to explain their interaction with Douglass, I began to see a feminine space around him, much like the concept of a “negative space” in art. That feminine space, like most feminine spaces, was where the real action took place. If you want to know about a life, that is the place you have to investigate.

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, readers will meet a host of fascinating, resourceful women, some of whom might otherwise remain footnotes. The women featured in this book had the most dramatic influence on Douglass’s life, but they also had their own agendas and contexts that explain the ebb and flow of their relationships with Douglass, as well as his respect for or sympathy with them. The abuse suffered by slave women and the capitulation of white women to the institution of slavery shaped his childhood, laying the foundation for the man he became. In his adulthood, each woman at some point formed a partnership with Douglass to advance a cause against racism that extended beyond abolition and the end of slavery. His relationships with all of these women exposed the variety of ways that gender and race were employed as tools of oppression. At the same time, he and they mobilized their resistance along those very same lines. While the story of women in Douglass’s world does not preclude other actors or influences in his life, by bringing them into focus their biographies add nuance and deeper understanding to his.

This piece was originally published at Black Perspectives, the blog of the AAIHS, on May 1st, 2017, the release date of Ms. Fought’s book

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Baltimore Sites

About a year ago…

Ordinary Philosophy

Listen to this podcast episode hereDouglass Place with engraved marker, Fell's Point Baltimore MD, photo 2016 Amy Cools or subscribe on iTunes

First day, Sunday March 20th

So here I am on the East Coast, commencing my Frederick Douglass history of ideas travel adventure in earnest! I’m thrilled, and know I’ll learn and see a lot, since I have so many sites I plan to visit already and know I’ll discover more as I go along.

…In a very important way, it’s fitting to begin with Douglass’s life here in Baltimore, centered in the waterfront district of Fell’s Point, since this is where Frederick Douglass had one of the most formative experiences of his life.

… Read the original travel account here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Happy Birthday, Booker T. Washington!

Booker T. Washington sculpture in the Mission Inn gardens, Riverside, CA, photo by Amy Cools 2017

‘My earliest recollection is of a small one-room log hut on a large slave plantation in Virginia. After the close of the war, while working in the coal-mines of West Virginia for the support of my mother, I heard in some accidental way of the Hampton Institute. When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there. Bidding my mother good-by, I started out one morning to find my way to Hampton, though I was almost penniless and had no definite idea where Hampton was. By walking, begging rides, and paying for a portion of the journey on the steam-cars, I finally succeeded in reaching the city of Richmond, Virginia. I was without money or friends. I slept under a sidewalk, and by working on a vessel next day I earned money to continue my way to the institute, where I arrived with a surplus of fifty cents. At Hampton I found the opportunity — in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous — to get training in the class-room and by practical touch with industrial life, to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.’ ~ Booker T. Washington, ‘The Awakening of the Negro‘, Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, and went on to become one of America’s leading educators and social reformers. He was born a slave in a simple cabin and never knew his father; he and his family were freed by the end of the Civil War when he was nine years old. Washington lived the life he would go on to advocate for his fellow black citizens: one of self-determination, self-sufficiency, hard work, thriftiness, and compromise. He believed firmly in gaining the respect of others, including those predisposed to dismiss him because of his race, solely through his own character and accomplishments. Was Washington wrong to emphasize the importance of demonstrating one’s own worth by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps over demanding equal legal rights as citizens? Perhaps the struggle for equality had always needed multiple lines of attack to crumble the whole structure of institutionalized legal, social, and subtly inculcated racism that has plagued and undermined this nation for so long. Perhaps he was simply misguided, even naive, though the latter is hard to accept given his intellectual prowess.

Be that as it may, Washington’s ideas drove him to work harder to create educational and economic opportunities for his fellow black citizens than just about anyone else we could name. And given his hard work, his integrity in staying true to his vision despite attacks from all sides, and his premature death by stress and overwork, the charge of ‘coward’ often leveled at him is, in my few, manifestly false and undeserved.

Learn more about the great yet controversial Booker T. Washington here, in fact, in praise, and in blame:

The Awakening of the Negro – by Booker T. Washington for the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) – by Lawson Bush for Blackpast.org

Booker T. Washington and the White Fear of Black Charisma – by Jeremy C. Young for the African American Intellectual History Society Blog

Booker T. Washington: American EducatorEncyclopædia Britannica

Pride and Compromise – Shelby Steele’s review of Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell

Speech to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia – September 18, 1895 – Booker T. Washington radio broadcast at American Radio Works

*I had the honor of interviewing Kenneth Morris last year; he’s an activist against modern slavery (wage slavery, sex trafficking, and other forms of coercive exploitation) and a direct descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, each a preeminent figure in American civil rights history and each with a radically different approach to achieving equal civil status for their fellow black citizens. However, they had three things in common: an essential pragmatism combined with as much idealism, a deep love of their people, and an abiding trust that the universal human instinct for justice would win in the end.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today

Happy Birthday, Frederick Douglass!

Two portraits of Frederick Douglass from the Hutchinson Family scrapbook, photo by Amy Cools

Two portraits of Frederick Douglass from the Hutchinson Family scrapbook in the archives of the Lynne Museum & Historical Society, photo by Amy Cools

The exact date of Frederick Douglass’s birth is unknown. We know the likely year, 1818, from the slave census of his master Aaron Anthony, who may also have been his father. His likely birth month, February, is an   estimate. In his later years, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th because his mother Harriet once called him ‘my Valentine’.

Douglass is one of my favorite people that ever inhabited the world. He was born into slavery in Maryland, was mostly self-educated, escaped to freedom when he was 20, married the loving and strong Anna Murray, and became one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for civil rights in American, and, indeed, world history. He was an author, orator, preacher, activist, statesman, patriarch, musician, and world traveler. Not only was he a motivated, resourceful, brilliant, complicated, and incredibly fascinating person, I think he was oh-so-handsome too.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by the great Frederick Douglass, including my own work.

7 Haunts of Frederick Douglass in New York City – by Amy Cools for Untapped Cities

Frederick Douglass – by Ronald Sundstrom for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frederick Douglass and a Valentine, Emily Dickinson and a Snake – by Rob Velella for  The American Literary Blog

Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia – by John Muller; this is my favorite blog about Douglass

Frederick’s Song – Douglass’ words arranged and set to music by SayReal and Richard Fink

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass – History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist – by Ken Morris and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass – by Leigh Fought and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

History As A Communal Act: The History of Black History Month, by Stephen G. Hall

Frederick Douglass as US Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image, sign at D.C. Court of Appeals

Frederick Douglass as US Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image, sign at D.C. Court of Appeals

African Americans have always imagined and constructed history as a communal act. At the inception of the African American historical enterprise in the early 19th century, Jacob Oson’s Search for Truth (1817), one of the first examples of a textual African American historical production, offers insights into these communal sensibilities. Oson delivered the address in New Haven and New York, the locations of two dynamic free black communities, addressing communal concerns such as the African past, contemporary treatment, and identity. He also received help in publishing the address from Christopher Rush, Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the largest black church organizations in the country. From inception to publication, history existed not as the purview of the few, but as a communal product.

Oson’s work was no mere isolated incident. Writers were largely community advocates: ministers, abolitionists, autodidacts, and bibliophiles. James W.C. Pennington’s A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People (1841)  offered important insights into African American history. Maria Stewart’s speeches blended piety with calls for communal action and awareness of racial injustice. Robert Benjamin Lewis’s interracial heritage (Native American and African) served as a springboard for his humanistic and universal history of African-descended people titled Light and Truth (1844). Black writers also envisioned their community as transnational. They engaged the African past as well as the complexities of the African Diaspora. They ruminated on the history of Haiti and Latin America. For these writers, African Americans were more than mere products of North American slavery. Their history was intertwined with the social, political, and cultural fabric of Africa and the Diaspora. In short, African American intellectuals understood their unique role as African-descended people whose history shaped the global experience.

Communal engagement proved central in dramatizing and reflecting the sentiments of historical periods. As African Americans laid the groundwork in the nation’s transition from slavery to freedom, Black history heralded these changes. William Wells Brown’s The Black Man (1863) and The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867) provided the first blueprints for the future. William Still’s The Underground Railroad (1871) reconstructed black heroism in the fight to end slavery. Black remembrance of the past focused less on individual achievements and more on the community’s collective ability to overcome obstacles to achieve clear goals. Freedom’s advent emanated from and served communal purposes.

Sculpture of John Brown by Edmonia Lewis

Sculpture of John Brown by Edmonia Lewis

Black history’s communal manifestations were not merely textual. West Indian Independence Day and Juneteenth and Emancipation Day Celebrations, to name a few, permeated the communal landscape throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Artistic representations, especially the work of Edmonia Lewis and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, were very important. Both of these women used sculpture to powerfully reconstruct the black past. Lewis’s John Brown (1864–65) and Robert Gould Shaw (1867–68, marble) depict historical figures subsequently revered in black communities. Her communal representation, Forever Free (1867, marble), celebrated the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The original title of the piece was “Morning of Liberty.” Fuller’s Ethiopia Awakening (1914), Mary Turner (Silent Protest Against Mob Violence) (1919) and Ethiopia Awakening (1930) highlight themes of racial pride, cultural awareness, and awakening and resilience in the face of adversity.

The outgrowth of these communal sensibilities naturally impacted the growth of the professionalized African American history project. Carter G. Woodson’s establishment of the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915, the Journal of Negro History (1916), and the Associated Publishers in 1916 built on preexisting traditions of communal engagement and representation. These traditions were already extant in the African American historical enterprise for at least a century prior to their professionalization. Woodson used the “Documents” and “Notes” sections of the JNH to present communal offerings, the living and breathing history found in the attics and basements of African Americans around the country. Due to the small number of professionally trained historians, Woodson understood that the African American historical project must embrace the larger community as well as the professional and lay classes. Woodson utilized the broadest cross-section of the black community, drawing on everyone from K-12 educators and administrators to physicians, politicians, and pastors and ordinary people who displayed an interest in the historical past.Black literary and historical societies, bibliophiles, and collectors were also prominent in this regard. Groups such as the American Negro Academy, the Negro Society for Historical Research, and the Mu-So Lit Club played a prominent role in promoting the study of history. Their efforts were complimented by bibliophiles such as Arthur Schomburg and Jesse Moorland. Schomburg, a Puerto-Rican immigrant, collected books about the global black experience in his Harlem apartment. His extensive collection was purchased by the New York Public Library in 1925. Today it comprises the nucleus of the Schomburg Collection in Harlem, New York. Jesse Moorland, an avid bibliophile, YMCA activist, and close friend of Carter G. Woodson, donated his sizable collections to the institution, which today are housed at Howard University’s Moorland-Springarn Room.

Abraham Lincoln's walking stick, Mary Todd Lincoln's gift to Frederick Douglass

Abraham Lincoln’s walking stick, Mary Todd Lincoln’s gift to Frederick Douglass

Given more than a century of deep engagement with history in black communities in textual, commemorative, artistic, organizational (literary and historical societies and libraries and repositories), and professional projects, it is not surprising that Negro History Week (1926) and later Black History Month (1980) emerged. Instituted as a communal celebration of black possibility and reality, Negro History Week continued earlier themes of accentuating black communal achievements, charting communal possibility and using institutional spaces to shape historical understanding within black communities and more important, in the national and global spheres. Its celebration in February acknowledges its communal roots. February is the birth month of two revered figures in African American life and history in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Douglass and Lincoln loomed large in the black imagination because of their associations, tangible and symbolic, with Emancipation. The commemorative celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, as well as the long communal struggle to eradicate slavery from the order of things, resonated in the chords of memory in African-descended populations well into the 20th century.

In 1926, the Annual Meeting of the ASNLH was held at Morgan State College (now university) in Baltimore. A “Negro History Week Roundtable” featured educators primarily from the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Given the prominence and activism of the black communities in these two locales, they serve as a representative sample for how “the movement,” as it was commonly labeled, impacted black communities. The comments of the educators, one of whom was Dr. Otelia Cromwell, Head of the Department of History and English in the public schools in the District of Columbia, emphasized the importance of the work. They also highlighted the impact of the celebration on young people in urban and rural communities. According to Cromwell, the observance of Negro History Week not only proved of great interest to students, faculty, and staff in the District of Columbia, but it also “had the effect of improving the tone and atmosphere of the school room.” The summation of Cromwell’s remarks unquestionably demonstrates the immeasurable nature of history’s communal reach. The report read: “These results which cannot be easily set forth in words or mathematically measured she believed to be the most important of all.” Cromwell knew that history’s import and meaning transcended the solidarity of a single moment in time. It permeated the classroom and seeped into the collective strivings of untold generations. It informed one hundred years of historical engagement and interrogation. It gave rise to textual writing, commemorative celebrations, artistic representations, literary and historical societies, black bibliophiles and collectors, and finally the professionalization of African American history in the first half of the twentieth century.

These same communal sensibilities informed the rise of the African American museum movement in the 1960s: The DuSable Museum of African American History (1961), the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit (1965), the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington (1967), and the African American Museum of Philadelphia (1976). Other community-inspired projects include The Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore (1983) and the National Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio (1987). All of these museums used history and historical artifacts to dramatize the black past and present it to the community. These efforts culminated in the creation of the National African American Museum on the National Mall in 2016.

Our contemporary moment has witnessed the continuation of these communal projects. It has spawned the use of digital spaces (Internet and social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram) to present African American history and historical ideas in new and dynamic ways. The construction of syllabi to educate diverse publics about contemporary events is a direct outgrowth of this communal focus. These efforts are too numerous to name them all, but a few examples will suffice: Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s #Ferguson Syllabus and the work of Drs. Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha Blain with the #CharlestonSyllabus, The D.A.TT Freedom Summer 2015 Syllabus, the #BlackPantherSyllabus, the #The Baltimore Syllabus, the BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, the Welfare Reform Syllabus, the Trump Syllabus 2.0, and the Trump Syllabus 2.0: Supplementary List.

Black History Month, then, is more than a month-long celebration or an obligatory relic of an outmoded past. Rather it is and continues to serve as the catalyst for the transmission of a dynamic historical memory embedded in the collective striving of a global people to celebrate their historical past, affirm their humanity, and share the richness and vibrancy of their history as a communal act.

This piece was originally published at The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog

Stephen G. Hall is the Program Coordinator of History at Alcorn State University. He is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2009).  He is currently completing an edited book entitled History as A Communal Act: African American Historians and Historical Writing Past and Present (Routledge Press, forthcoming). His second book project is entitled Global Visions: African American Historians Engage the World, 1885–1960. (Bio credit: AAIHS)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

APA Member Interview: Amy Cools

Amy Cools, Portrait by Alex Black, 2014October 21, 2016 by Skye Cleary for the American Philosophical Association Blog

What excites you about philosophy?

There’s something about discovering or realizing a truth about the world and about our inner experiences of it that’s more thrilling to me than anything else. When I first read Wilfred Seller’s definition of philosophy, the “aim…to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”, I recognized that his conception of philosophy is closest to my own. I believe philosophy is something that all human beings engage in, to one degree or another, and to feel that I’m part of this great human endeavor to understand and appreciate the world is also deeply satisfying…

Read the rest of this interview at the APA Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!