Helen Pitts Douglass

Frederick Douglass' Second Wife

Helen Pitts Douglass
Helen Pitts Douglass. Courtesy US National Park Service

Born Helen Pitts (1838 - 1903), Helen Pitts Douglass was a suffragist and abolitionist in the 19th century. She is best known for marrying politician and abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass in a surprising and scandalous interracial marriage.

Fast Facts: Helen Pitts Douglass

  • Full Name: Helen Pitts Douglass
  • Occupation: Suffragist, reformer, and abolitionist
  • Born: 1838 in Honeoye, New York
  • Died: 1903 in Washington, D.C.
  • Known For: A white woman who married the mixed-race abolition leader Frederick Douglass, Helen Pitts Douglass was an advocate in her own right and pushed for abolition, suffrage, and her husband's legacy.
  • Spouse: Frederick Douglass (m. 1884-1895)

Early Life and Work

Helen Pitts was born and raised in the small town of Honeoye, New York. Her parents, Gideon and Jane Pitts, had abolitionist views and participated in anti-slavery work. She was the oldest of five children, and her ancestors included Priscilla Alden and John Alden, who had come to New England on the Mayflower. She was also a distant cousin of President John Adams and of President John Quincy Adams.

Helen Pitts attended a female seminary Methodist seminary in nearby Lima, New York. She then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, founded by Mary Lyon in 1837, and graduated in 1859.

A teacher, she taught at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school founded after the Civil War for the education of freedmen. In poor health, and after a conflict in which she accused some local residents of harassing students, she moved back to the family home at Honeoye.

In 1880, Helen Pitts moved to Washington, DC, to live with her uncle. She worked with Caroline Winslow on The Alpha, a women’s rights publication, and began to be more outspoke in the suffrage movement.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, the well-known abolitionist and civil rights leader and ex-slave, had attended and spoke at the 1848 Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention. He was an acquaintance of Helen Pitts’ father, whose home had been part of the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad. In 1872 Douglass had been nominated – without his knowledge or consent – as the vice presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party, with Victoria Woodhull nominated for president. Less than a month later, his home in Rochester burned down, possibly the result of arson. Douglass moved his family, including his wife, Anna Murray Washington, from Rochester, NY, to Washington, DC.

In 1881, President James A. Garfield appointed Douglass as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Helen Pitts, living next door to Douglass, was hired by Douglass as a clerk in that office. He was often traveling and was also working on his autobiography; Helen Pitts helped him in that work.

In August, 1882, Anne Murray Douglass died. She had been ill for some time. Douglass fell into a deep depression. He began to work with Ida B. Wells on anti-lynching activism.

Married Life

On January 24, 1884, Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts were married in a small ceremony officiated by the Rev. Francis J. Grimké, at his home. Grimké, a leading black minister of Washington, had also been born into slavery, also with a white father and a black slave mother. His father’s sisters, the famous women’s rights and abolitionist reformers Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké, had taken in Francis and his brother Archibald when they discovered the existence of these mixed-race nephews, and had seen to their education. The marriage seems to have taken their friends and families by surprise.

The notice in the New York Times (January 25, 1884) highlighted what were likely to be seen as the scandalous details of the marriage:

“Washington, January 24. Frederick Douglass, the colored leader, was married in this city this evening to Miss Helen M. Pitts, a white woman, formerly of Avon, N.Y. The wedding, which took place at the house of Dr. Grimké, of the Presbyterian church, was private, only two witnesses being present. The first wife of Mr. Douglass, who was a colored woman, died about a year ago. The woman he married to-day is about 35 years of age, and was employed as a copyist in his office. Mr. Douglass himself is about 73 years of age and has daughters as old as his present wife.”

Helen’s parents opposed the marriage because of Douglass's mixed-race heritage (he was born to a black mother but a white father), and stopped speaking to her. Frederick’s children were also opposed, believing it dishonored his marriage to their mother. (Douglass had five children with his first wife; one, Annie, died at age 10 in 1860.) Others, both white and black, expressed opposition and even outrage at the marriage.

However, they had support from some corners. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, longtime friend of Douglass though at a key point a political opponent over the priority of women’s rights and black men’s rights, was among the defenders of the marriage. Douglass responded with some humor, and was quoted as saying “This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father.” He also wrote,

“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.”

Helen was not the first relationship Douglass had had aside from his first wife. Beginning in 1857, Douglass had carried out an intimate relationship with Ottilie Assing, a writer who was a German Jewish immigrant. Assing apparently thought he would marry her, especially after the Civil War, and believed that his marriage to Anna was no longer meaningful to him. She left for Europe in 1876, and was disappointed that he never joined her there. The August after he married Helen Pitts, she, apparently suffering from breast cancer, committed suicide in Paris, leaving money in her will to be delivered to him twice a year as long as he lived.

Frederick Douglass’ Later Work and Travels

From 1886 to 1887, Helen and Frederick Douglass traveled together to Europe and Egypt. They returned to Washington, then from 1889 to 1891, Frederick Douglass served as the US minister to Haiti, and Helen lived with him there. He resigned in 1891, and in 1892 to 1894, he traveled extensively, speaking against lynching

In 1892, he began to work on establishing housing in Baltimore for black renters. The following year, Douglass was the only African American official (as a commissioner for Haiti) at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Radical to the end, he was asked in 1895 by a young man of color for advice, and he offered this: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

Douglass returned to Washington from a lecture tour in February 1895 despite declining health. He attended a meeting of the National Council of Women on February 20, and spoke to a standing ovation. On returning home, he had a stroke and heart attack, and died that day. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the eulogy which Susan B. Anthony delivered. He was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.

Working to Memorialize Frederick Douglass

After Douglass died, his will leaving Cedar Hill to Helen was ruled invalid, because it lacked enough witness signatures. Douglass’ children wished to sell the estate, but Helen wanted it as a memorial to Frederick Douglass. She worked to raise funds to establish it as a memorial, with the help of African American women including Hallie Quinn Brown. Helen Pitts Douglass lectured her husband's history to bring in funds and raise public interest. She was able to buy the house and adjoining acres, though it was heavily mortgaged.

She also worked to have a bill passed that would incorporate the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. The bill, as originally written, would have had Douglass’ remains moved from Mount Hope Cemetery to Cedar Hill. Douglass’ youngest son, Charles R. Douglass, protested, citing his father's wish to be buried at Mount Hope - and insulting Helen as a mere "companion" for Douglass's later years as well.

Despite this objection, Helen was able to get the bill passed through Congress to establish the memorial association. As a sign of respect, however, Frederick Douglass’ remains were not moved to Cedar Hill; Helen instead was buried at Mount Hope as well in 1903. Helen completed her memorial volume about Frederick Douglass in 1901.

Near the end of her life, Helen Douglass became weakened, and was unable to continue her travels and lectures. She enlisted the Rev. Francis Grimké in the cause. He convinced Helen Douglass to agree that if the mortgage had not been paid at her death, the money raised from the property being sold would go to college scholarships in Frederick Douglass’ name.

The National Association of Colored Women was able, after Helen Douglass’ death, to purchase the property, and to keep the estate as a memorial, as Helen Douglass had envisioned. Since 1962, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Home has been under the administration of the National Park Service. In 1988, it became the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Sources

  • Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1881.
  • Douglass, Helen Pitts. In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass. 1901.
  • Harper, Michael S. “The love letters of Helen Pitts.” TriQuarterly. 1997.
  • "Marriage of Frederick Douglass." The New York Times, 25 Jan. 1884. https://www.nytimes.com/1884/01/25/archives/marriage-of-frederick-douglass.html