[Helen Pitts Douglass]
Helen Pitts Douglass was dying.
At 66 years of age, the widow of Frederick Douglass had been in fragile health for decades. Now, after years of driving herself; giving lectures, raising funds and seeking public support for a monument to her beloved husband, she could no longer leave her home or even her bed. But she could still hope. Hope that she’d done her best now that she’d done all she could.
While clearly a woman who’d always followed her own path through life, she could also hope that whatever prominence and recognition she may have achieved over the years would aid in securing Frederick’s legacy. But in all probability, given her unselfish commitment, had she been able to see into the future, she would likely not have been troubled knowing that, even while the monument she had built for Frederick was growing and prospering, her role, indeed her existence, would be all-but-forgotten.
What thoughts were passing through Helen’s mind during those late fall days of 1903 at Cedar Hill, the home in the Anacostia neighborhood of the District of Columbia which she’d shared with Frederick for 11 years, only she knew. Thoughts of her childhood in bucolic Honeoye, New York where she’d been born in 1837 into the town’s Founding Family, good abolitionists all?(1) Thoughts of her days at Mount Holyoke when she was one of the very few women in America receiving a college education? Thoughts of traveling to Virginia during the Civil War to teach the children of escaped slaves?
Certainly she was thinking of her life with Frederick Douglass and the uproar their marriage in 1884 had generated, not just among the members of their respective families, but across America as a whole. (2) Indeed, Helen and Frederick had scandalized many Americans, white and black, when it was reported that a white women, many years younger than Frederick, and an employee in his government office, had married the famous orator and nationally-recognized advocate for human rights less than two years after the death of his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.
Surely in her last hours Helen would have sadly recalled her husband’s death, his funerals and their aftermath. How Frederick had returned home to Cedar Hill early in the evening of February 20, 1895, having spent the day talking to his old friend, ally and sometimes opponent, Susan B. Anthony at a women’s rights convention. How in retelling the events of the meeting Frederick had suddenly collapsed to the floor and died within minutes, felled by a heart attack.
Perhaps with her own death approaching, Helen’s thoughts would have lingered on her husband’s funeral at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington where 25,000 people had crowded the streets around the church and where thousands of mourners had passed by Frederick’s open casket for one last glimpse of the great man. And sitting in that church Helen would have known something which, at this late date, we can never know. Namely, the reason why she had initially sat alone in the pew while Frederick’s children and Frederick’s and her friends sat in other parts of the church. Why, as reported in the papers, “During the services at the church, Mrs. Frederick Douglass sat alone at first, until Justice Harlan, Senator Sherman and Senator Hoar came in and were seated in the same pew.” Was Helen left alone as the result of lingering shreds of the scandal which had attended her wedding? Or perhaps was it a new scandal of sorts? Because, rather than being swathed in black as Victorian etiquette demanded, Helen had appeared at the funeral dressed in brown!
Helen’s thoughts might then have gone back to the railroad trip where she and Frederick’s three surviving children had escorted his casket up to Rochester, the city most associated with Frederick’s life, and were he’d lived for almost 30 years with his first wife and their children, but a city where Helen was all-but-a-stranger.
She’d certainly recall how Frederick lay in state in the heavily-draped-in-mourning City Hall. How large crowds had again filled the streets and passed solemnly by the casket. Perhaps she’d remember how some Rochesterians had even proposed that the city rename Highland Park as Douglass Park in Frederick’s honor. She’d certainly recall the funeral at Central Church (today’s Hochstein School), as well as the lengthy funeral procession, with brass bands playing dirges, from the church to Mount Hope Cemetery where Frederick was temporarily laid to rest in the receiving vault until warmer days would make it possible to dig his grave.
We can be certain that Helen would have thought back to a May morning, three months after the funeral, when she had traveled back to Rochester to participate with her stepchildren in a far quieter ceremony as Frederick’s casket was removed from the receiving vault and interred in the Douglass family plot.
With doubtless mixed emotions, Helen would have reflected on what happened next. And how future events had impacted the plans she was evolving to turn Cedar Hill into a monument to Frederick and his work.
When Frederick’s will was read, Helen found that she was to receive Cedar Hill, its furnishings, Frederick’s personal property and papers, and enough money so that she could quickly realize her dream. (3) But she’d also have recalled that it all came crashing down when it was discovered that Frederick’s will was defective, lacking the proper number of witnesses. An amazing oversight for a man who had dealt with witnessed legal documents in his government office for years.
Following almost immediately upon this news came a rupture with Frederick’s children who, alleging that Helen had exerted undue influence on her husband to deprive them of what they saw as their rightful inheritance. (4) It quickly became clear that Helen’s plan to memorialize Frederick at Cedar Hill was being threatened by the desire of his children to liquidated the estate and divvy up the proceeds, leaving Frederick’s legacy to fend for itself.
In her last days, Helen would probably have been grateful to forget how Frederick’s estate ended up in the hands of the probate court, and how, after several years and several additional suits by her step children, that had resulted in all of Frederick’s real estate, including Cedar Hill being given to his children, while Helen received possession of his papers and other personal possessions and about $2,000 cash.
Unquestionably Helen would have recalled that after the court had finalized the disposition of Frederick’s estate, his children had agreed to sell Cedar Hill to her for $15,000, a sum she had to mortgage the property to raise.
Thinking back, Helen would have remembered how, having limited financial resources of her own, she’d been forced to take up her pen and begin a new life as a public lecturer, speaking on such topics as, “The Hittites”, “Modern Egypt”, and her centerpiece presentation, “The Convict Lease System,” an expose of how southern state officials raked off large sums by leasing chain gangs of black prisoners to private businesses to work in conditions little better than slavery, offering her lectures (which in some cases utilized the high tech medium of 3D stereopticon slide projection) to various civic and religious groups in the northeastern United States at $25 per talk. All the while pinching pennies to pay the mortgage and keep the Cedar Hill roof over her head.
(In 1898 Helen spoke about the convict lease system to an overflow audience at Rochester’s Unitarian Church. According to later reviews, her hour and a half presentation, “with very little reference to notes”, was praised for, “the vividness with which Mrs. Douglass depicted the terrible cruelties which are being enacted”.)
Helen would have happily recalled how, after five years of fundraising and seeking political support, her efforts were rewarded on June 6, 1900 when Congress issued a charter for the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, with the stated goal of, “to preserve to posterity the memory of the life and character of the late Frederick Douglass” and, “to collect, collate, and preserve an historical record…of the anti-slavery movement” at Cedar Hill. Fittingly, Helen became the Association’s first president.
Helen might also have briefly thought of how, while working on the Cedar Hill monument, she was also creating a literary monument to Frederick.
Editing into a 350 page book some of the hundreds of tributes, sermons, resolutions, remembrances, press reports and even poems generated by Frederick’s death, in 1897 Helen had arranged for the publication of “In Memoriam – Frederick Douglass”, intended as, “a record of the spontaneous expression of grief and surprise evoked by the sudden death of Frederick Douglass. The news of this event startled the country as the ear is startled by the sudden crash when some monarch of the forest suddenly falls to the ground.” Sales appear to have been tepid at best although the book has been reprinted over the years.
In her last days Helen might have recalled with mixed emotions how little she knew about the Douglass family’s connection to Mount Hope Cemetery prior to Frederick’s death. Following the 1860 death of his 10 year daughter, Annie, Frederick had purchased a family burial plot where the child was eventually laid to rest. After Frederick’s 1895 burial, the Douglass plot had remained barren and empty with no marker to identify Frederick or Annie. But by the spring of 1898 things began to change quickly when Anna Murray Douglass, who had been buried in Washington, DC following her death in 1882, was disinterred and brought to Mount Hope by her children (who apparently didn’t notify Helen of the fact) to be buried at Frederick’s side.
That year Helen had contacted the John P. Weston Company on South Clinton Ave., “Designers, Manufacturers and Dealers” in cemetery monuments, to purchase an appropriate monument stone to honor her husband, eventually deciding on a simple but massive granite slab with plain brass lettering setting out Frederick’s name, birth and death years (the cost being $225). The stone was installed just after Memorial Day 1898, described by the Democrat and Chronicle as being, “very artistic (and) plain and substantial, and is in perfect keeping with the life and character of this noble patriot.”
A few months later Helen was notified by the superintendent of Mount Hope Cemetery that the Douglass children had contracted for the installation of a family memorial stone on the plot. Concerned that the plot would be overcrowded, the superintendent wrote Helen that, “It does not seem that considering the size of the lot and the large granite slab already placed there by yourself that this would be in keeping. The two would of necessity come quite close together, and as that already there is of considerably larger bulk it would give the appearance of two monuments set corner to corner. If control of the lot rests with you kindly advise what your wishes are in the matter”. Whatever Helen’s personal wishes, the matter was settled as the Douglass children had proposed and their stone was set in place later that year. The two stones stand there today, corner to corner, perhaps a bit too close. (5)
Doubtless Helen thought about how, in 1899, she had returned to Rochester where, on a reviewing stand with Gov. Theodore Roosevelt, she had participated in the unveiling off the statue commemorating Frederick. Although she preferred a location near Highland Park (where the statue eventually would be moved), the statue was initially erected at St. Paul Ave. and Central Ave. near the municipal railroad station, ostensibly so that it could be seen by traveler’s passing through Rochester.
All these remembrances, perhaps only some of them, perhaps many others could have passed through Helen’s mind as the end neared. We can’t know what her final thoughts were, but we can safely assume that they were of Frederick, the cherished husband to whose life she had devoted her own. “Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color.”
POSTSCRIPT FOR HELEN
“Mrs. Fred Douglass Dead” read the small headline buried away on page 12 of the December 2, 1903 Democrat and Chronicle. Helen had passed away the previous evening at Cedar Hill, of chronic heart disease. Plans for her funeral and burial were left up to her brother Gideon.
Although Helen had often mentioned that her preference was to be buried on the grounds of Cedar Hill, and to have Frederick’s remains disinterred from Mount Hope and reburied next to her (which it was clear the Douglass children would never permit), given that burials outside of cemeteries in the District of Columbia required Congressional approval, this plan quickly faded. As did talk that some of the children were planning yet another lawsuit to obtain possession of all of their father’s papers and other personal property which the courts had awarded to Helen.
Gideon Pitts arranged for a quiet funeral service for Helen at Cedar Hill on December 5. At the service, Rev. Francis Grimké, the minister who’d married Helen and Frederick in 1884 (and who succeeded Helen as president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association), spoke of how, “Everything connected to Mr. Douglass was precious in her sight. The fact that he was in any way associated with anything put the stamp of sacredness upon it. The chair in which he used to sit had a ribbon tied over it after he passed away so as to prevent anyone from occupying it; the place at the head of the table where he used to sit, no one was ever permitted afterwards to occupy it.”
Gideon then escorted Helen’s remains to Rochester for a private, very private, burial next to Frederick at Mount Hope on December 7. So private in fact that only a passing, one or two line, mention of the burial was made in the local papers. And there matters lay for almost 70 years. No stone marked Helen’s grave. Nothing but grass and weeds covered her resting place. Few visitors to the Douglass plot had any idea that Helen was there, or indeed who Helen was. The only names listed on the two existing stones being Frederick’s, Anna’s and little Annie’s.
Then, in 1972, with no fanfare, public notice or press coverage, a monument stone appeared on Helen’s grave. Inscribed:
HELEN PITTS DOUGLASS
1838 – 1903
WIDOW OF ORATOR AND STATESMAN
THROUGH HER VISION
HIS GREATNESS WAS MEMORIALIZED
AT CEDAR HILL IN WASHINGTON, DC
MRS. DOUGLASS WAS THE FOUNDER OF
THE FREDERICK DOUGLASS HISTORICAL
AND MEMORIAL ASSOCIATION
Subsequently it was disclosed that the stone had been commissioned by the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association to honor Helen and to commemorate that year’s public reopening of Cedar Hill. Unfortunately the stone carver had her birth year wrong (Helen was born in 1837, not 1838) and had transposed part of the name of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. (6)
When Helen’s will was read it was found, to no one’s surprise, that she had left Cedar Hill and all it furnishing’s, books, silverware, statuary, all Frederick’s papers, and the mortgage, to the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association (FDMHA). Although, by the time of her death Helen had managed to reduce the mortgage to $5,500, and although in 1908 Booker T. Washington launched a national fund raising campaign (which unfortunately raised few funds), by 1916 the FDMHA still owed $4,000 on the property.
To their rescue came the National Association of Colored Women, who committed to paying off the FDMHA’s mortgage by 1918, the centennial of Frederick’s birth. While that goal was accomplished, the ups and downs of fundraising to maintain Cedar Hill over the succeeding years, led to the FDMHA deciding in 1964 to deed the property, the furnishings and Frederick’s papers to the federal government. Following extensive rehabilitation and modifications, on February 14, 1972, before a crowd of over 2,000 spectators, the National Park Service opened Cedar Hill to the public. Frederick’s papers were sent to the Library of Congress. As to the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, it remains in existence to this day, still working, “to preserve the memory and legacy of Frederick Douglass”.
A few days before she died, Helen reportedly said to a friend regarding the Cedar Hill monument she had spent the last years of her life creating, “I do not wish this to be understood to be a colored movement, a movement by the colored people, but a movement by the people, for the people, regardless of color.” I think we can be certain that in those last days Helen’s thoughts would not have been on how the future would view her efforts to preserve Frederick’s legacy. Unfortunately, her efforts have been all-but-forgotten, by all except the National Park Service and a few historians and authors.
Still, there were a few tributes to Helen after her death. In 1934, summing up his years of close association with Helen, Frederick and Cedar Hill, the Rev. Francis Grimké wrote:
“Mrs. Douglass had her heart set on saving to the race the place where Mr. Douglass had lived for twenty five years. …(she) saw what it would mean in the coming years to a struggling race to have a mecca to come to, which would be a constant reminder to them of the great struggle through which they had passed and were still passing, and of the spirit necessary, if ultimate success is to crown their efforts.”
“And just here, let me say, had it not been for Helen Pitts the white women who had been spurned by so many colored people, Cedar Hill, now the pride of the Negro race and preserved as a perpetual memorial to Frederick Douglass because of what he was as a man, and of the great services which he rendered humanity, would have been lost to the race.”
(1) Later, writing of the abolitionist influences on Helen while she was growing up, the Rochester Democrat newspaper waxed rhapsodic, “In Honeoye, at an early day, abolition conventions were of frequent occurrence, and many of the ablest anti-slavery orators have spoken there; and thus the place was educated not only in anti-slavery ideas, but received an intellectual culture of a high order as well, which has rendered it not only intelligent, but has also freed it from many of the prejudices of caste.” (I should modestly note that I was also raised in Honeoye. Albeit at a somewhat later date.)
(2) Following her marriage to Frederick Douglass, Helen’s parents ceased all communication with her and her father cut her out of his will, although she later made a sort of peace with her mother.
(3) The March 7, 1895 Democrat and Chronicle wrote that, “Two years ago the wealth of Mr. Douglass was estimated at $200,000, and although it has shrunk somewhat since that time, it is yet quite a fortune, and will be a rich plum for lawyers and litigant to fight over.” It later became apparent that the paper had seriously overstated the value of Frederick’s estate.
(4) Some historians speculate that Rosetta Douglass Sprague initiated the dispute, possibly at the instigation of her husband Nathan. Nathan’s conduct had long worried Frederick Douglass. Having obtained for him an appointment to a position in the Rochester post office, Frederick was subsequently embarrassed when is son-in-law was arrested and jailed for stealing mail.
(5) Although Anna Murray Douglass and Annie Douglass have been listed on the family headstone in Mount Hope since 1898, it’s recently been announced that the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and the Rochester Area Community Foundation plan to provide the two women with their own grave markers on the already crowded Douglass plot.
(6) This is a bit confusing given that for decades there was a plaque on the wall at Cedar Hill listing Helen’s correct birth date. And why the FDMHA accepted the stone when the carver had screwed up their name is anyone’s guess.