I believe that simultaneously with the landing of the Pilgrims, there landed slaves on the shores of this continent, and that for two hundred and thirty years and more we have had a foothold on this continent.
– Frederick Douglass, from THE FREE NEGRO’S PLACE IS IN AMERICA, Speech delivered at National Convention of Liberty Party, Buffalo, New York, September 18,1851
Little could Frederick Douglass have dreamt that, three decades after he spoke those words, he’d become the living link between Pilgrims and slaves, between Plymouth Rock and the people it fell on.¹
At first (and second, and third) glance, you could be forgiven for assuming the only thing that Frederick Douglass and the Pilgrims had in common was that they, and Douglass’ ancestors, both arrived in America by ship. With the significant difference that the Pilgrims came voluntarily, looking for freedom, while Douglass’ ancestors were dragged here in chains, having lost theirs.
And that’s all the connection there was for most of Douglass’ life. Then, in 1884, this widowed son of slaves married Helen Pitts, a daughter of the Mayflower, in a wedding that, low key as it was, represented an almost mystical union, linking a member of the ultimate outsiders in American history to a scion of the ultimate insiders.
While Douglass’ story is well-known, a few words about the background to their marriage, and about Helen Pitts, are in order.
Following the 1872 destruction by arson of their home on South Avenue in Rochester, Douglass and his family moved to Washington, DC where he eventually purchased a substantial home in the Anacostia neighborhood, naming it “Cedar Hill.” In 1881, in recognition for his services in James Garfield’s presidential campaign, Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Although qualified and deserving of a far more prestigious position in the new administration, Douglass nevertheless accepted the offer. Retained in the post following Garfield’s assassination, the next year Douglass hired Helen (who was then living next door to Cedar Hill with her uncle) to be a clerk in his office.
Douglass had known Helen and her staunchly abolitionist family since the mid-1850s, staying occasionally at their home in Honeoye while touring western New York giving anti-slavery speeches.² The Pitts family, having moved from Massachusetts in 1789, had been the earliest settlers in the Honeoye area. But it was through her mother’s line that Helen was a direct descendant of those archetypal Pilgrims John and Priscilla Mullins Alden, a family tree which not only connected Helen to the Mayflower but made her a distant relation of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, as well as noted American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.³ If anyone could be considered the textbook face of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant America, it was Helen. But she was far from textbook in other areas.
Unlike the vast majority of women in her day, Helen was a college graduate, having attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (later Mount Holyoke College, the first of the Seven Sisters). Building on her abolitionist roots, during the Civil War she traveled to Hampton, Virginia to teach escaped slaves. Following the war Helen became involved in the women’s rights movement, eventually moving to Washington where she was a co-editor of a radical feminist magazine, the Alpha.
On August 4, 1882 Douglass’ first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, died. Douglass was devastated at the loss, not only of a wife and the mother of his children, but the loss of the woman who helped him to escape from bondage and supported his early efforts in the anti-slavery movement. But then to the shock of family, friends, and society in general, less than a year and a half later, on January 24, 1884, with no advance notice, even to their families, Frederick Douglass married Helen Pitts in a private ceremony.4
The public reaction of both the black and white communities was forceful, and almost entirely negative. All many saw was that an older black man (Douglass was 66) had married his 46 year old, white employee.
Oceans of ink were spent in the 1880s hyperbolically speculating on the reason for the marriage and condemning and scorning Douglass and Helen for being traitors to their respective races. And additional oceans have been spent since that time by historians writing about the marriage and the furor over it. Across the decades the story has been covered in detail, most recently in the excellent biography, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought. So I don’t intend to spend but a few more drops on the furor it created.
Initially reluctant to publicly discuss the marriage, (“What business has the world with the color of my wife?” Douglass wrote to a friend a few months later) he eventually saw a need to explain his action. Although Helen remained reticent, Douglass, writing in a subsequent edition of his autobiography brought up both the topic of his marriage as well as his own mixed-race ancestry:
No man, perhaps, had ever more offended popular prejudice than I had then lately done. I had married a wife. People who had remained silent over the unlawful relations of white slave masters with their colored slave women loudly condemned me for marrying a wife a few shades lighter than myself. They would have had no objection to my marrying a person much darker in complexion than myself, but to marry one much lighter, and of the complexion of my father rather than of that of my mother, was, in the popular eye, a shocking offense, and one for which I was to be ostracized by white and black alike.
Even Douglass’ and Helen’s families opposed the marriage. Seeing it as an insult to their mother’s memory, the Douglass children never reconciled themselves to his remarrying. And, while literally on her death bed Helen’s mother eventually did accept the situation, her father never spoke or wrote to her again for the remaining years of his life.
Though newspaper accounts occasionally made mention of Helen’s Mayflower ancestry, neither of the Douglasses appear to have ever commented on the cultural and historical significance of their marriage.5
Following Douglass’ sudden death on Feb. 20, 1895, it was discovered that his will was defective and that instead of Cedar Hill and his papers being inherited by Helen, the estate would have to be divided between her and Douglass’ children. Although wishing to maintain the home and its effects as a monument to her husband, Helen was opposed by Douglass’ family who simply wanted the property liquidated. To meet their demands, she mortgaged the home and used the proceeds to pay their claims. Spending the remainder of her life on lecture tours to raise the funds to pay off that mortgage, in 1900 Helen arranged to permanently protect Cedar Hill and Douglass’ legacy by founding the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association which, with eventual aid from other groups, maintained the home until it’s ownership and care were transferred to the National Park Service in the 1960s. 6
But being a descendant of those who sailed on the Mayflower didn’t mean that they’d always let you back on board. In 1900 Helen applied for membership in the District of Columbia Chapter of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (known more simply as the Mayflower Society). Given her clear descent from John and Priscilla, Helen’s approval should have been automatic. But the head of the local chapter refused to even accept her application, reportedly, “because there was a feeling against a white woman who had married a colored man, such as would make trouble in the Society and be the occasion of resignations”.
Not one to take such an insult her beloved late husband quietly, Helen excoriated the Society publicly in a Letter to the Editor in a local paper:
It is of small moment to me whether or not the officers of any society open their doors to me, but I desire to know, and that others may know, if the construction of the Mayflower Society is such that any officer in it may arrogate to himself so unconstitutional a proceeding as the one of which the Mayflower Society of the District of Columbia has been guilty…Trampling upon Constitutional rights is becoming altogether too frequent in our land…if the descendants of the Mayflower give themselves up to it, to whom may we look for fair dealing?
Staking out the moral high ground, and denouncing the prejudice of those who violated what she felt were the ideas and motives which animated her Pilgrim forbearers, Helen further lambasted the Society:
And that idea [is] the idea of personal and religious freedom and toleration embodied in the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. The simple debarkation of a shipload of people is, in itself, without significance. The impelling motive is what gives dignity to the act, and therefore no Mayflower descendant can be worthy [of] the name who does not represent the principle for which the landing has always stood, and still stands, notwithstanding the moral degeneracy of some of their descendants.
Helen died in 1903. Although given a funeral in Washington, she had asked for no service in Rochester. She was quietly buried next to her husband in Mount Hope Cemetery, in the Douglass family plot which also contained his first wife Anna and later his children.
Although Helen had provided the massive slab monument which covered Frederick Douglass’ grave, no one in
Rochester or elsewhere lifted a finger to provide a marker for her burial, public apathy allowing it to remain unmarked until the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association arranged for a memorial stone to be installed some 70 years after her death. The stone identifies Helen (and misidentifies her DOB) as, “Widow of orator and statesman Frederick Douglass”, and notes that “Through her vision his greatness is memorialized at Cedar Hill, Washington, DC.”.
Next year will be the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims. One can but hope that the spirits of Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass invite themselves to the proceedings. They have more right to be there than most.7
1. In light of the above story, it would be interesting to know what Douglass would have thought of Malcolm X’s statement: “We are not Americans. We are a people who formerly were Africans who were kidnapped and brought to America. Our forefathers weren’t the Pilgrims. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.”
It would be even more interesting to know whether Malcolm X was aware of Douglass’ marital connection to Plymouth Rock, or whether his inspiration might have come from Cole Porter:
“Since the Puritans got a shock When they landed on Plymouth Rock. If today any shock they should try to stem ‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would land on them.” – “Anything Goes” (1934)
2. At one time or another, two of the Pitts’ family homes in Honeoye had been stops on the Underground Railroad.
3. As one proof of the theory of “six degrees of separation,” my mother’s aunt, Marinda Deyo, married John Henry Harlow Alden, a lineal descendant of John and Priscilla, making my brother and myself – along with the scores of thousands related to the Aldens by blood or marriage – “cousins” of Frederick Douglass, Helen Pitts Douglass, and the two President Adamses.
4. In 1884, 22 of the 39 states still had laws on their books prohibiting interracial marriages. The fact that the Douglass-Pitts marriage was legal in the District of Columbia served to revive a moribund movement to pass a constitutional amendment barring such marriages nationwide. Although the attempt ultimately failed, it wasn’t until 1967 that the US Supreme Court finally struck down the remaining state laws as unconstitutional.
5. In 1852, in his most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” given at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, Douglass quoted a few lines from Longfellow, “Trust no future, however pleasant, Let the dead past bury its dead,” never imagining that one day he and Longfellow would be “cousins.”
6. Now entering its 119th year, the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association remains active, pursing its goal to educate and inspire Americans with the story and message of Frederick Douglass.
7.While such a visit would be Helen’s first to Plymouth Rock, it wouldn’t be Douglass’. As a recently-escaped slave, just starting his rise to fame as a speaker, he visited Plymouth on Nov. 4, 1841 to give a speech before the local anti-slavery society. Already adept at poking fun at the racist pretensions of many white, allegedly-Christian, Americans, Douglass told a story of a revival meeting he’d attended in New Bedford where there had been some discussion over the place of blacks in the Kingdom of Heaven. He told how a young white girl:
fell into a trance. When she awoke, she declared she had been to heaven. Her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others–and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, “Oh! I didn’t go into the kitchen!
Editor’s note: During the abolitionist movement, the Pilgrims were sometimes equated with the freeing of the slaves. In an April 22nd, 1845 letter from Wendell Phillips to Douglass (that Douglass includes in Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave), Phillips writes:
New England, cutting loose from a blood-stained Union, shall glory in being the house of refuge for the oppressed,–till we no longer merely”~hide~ the outcast,” or make a merit of standing idly by while he is hunted in our midst; but, consecrating anew the soil of the Pilgrims as an asylum for the oppressed, proclaim our WELCOME to the slave so loudly, that the tones shall reach every hut in the Carolinas, and make the broken-hearted bondman leap up at the thought of old Massachusetts.
Plymouth Rock is reimagined as a symbol of refuge and asylum for the oppressed slave.
ALSO ON DOUGLASS, SEE “The greatest American of the nineteenth century”