Monday, January 28, 2008

Frederick Douglass's Sister, part 3

In September 2002, the Nebraska State Historical Society received a donation from Alyce McWilliams Hall, the younger sister of Opal Pollard and the niece of Alice Coffee, donors of the letters in the Library of Congress. Hall's family had entrusted her with a small archive containing 150 years of their history. This collection included a sewing box that Douglass had sent to Bailey from his first trip to England, clippings of the Douglass family’s hair, and a photo of Bailey – Adams – herself. Better yet, the donation included additional letters illuminating Adams’s life and a biography of Adams written by her granddaughter, Alice V. Coffee and further clues that pointed the way to the missing pieces in the story of Harriet Bailey/Ruth Cox Adams.

“Harriet Bailey” began life as Ruth Cox. She was born sometime between 1818 and 1822 in Talbot County, Maryland, the same county as the birthplace of Frederick Douglass. Her mother was Ebby Cox, an enslaved woman who lived and worked in the Easton home of U.S. representative and senator John Leeds Kerr (1780-1844). Her father was, she remembered, a free black laborer who was periodically allowed to live with his enslaved family. Adams last recalled seeing her father when “he told us he was off to Baltimore to work as he could get better pay.” The federal census for 1840, in fact, records that a free black man between the ages of 36 and 55 lived in the home of John Leeds Kerr during that year, as did 10 enslaved males of various ages between 10 and 100, and 11 enslaved women ranging in age from below ten years to 55 years.

Ruth, like her mother Ebby, served as a domestic slave, taking on the duties of nursing, sewing, and, according to family legend, bookkeeping. She supposedly received her first reading lessons from the white women in the household. Literacy among slaves, while neither common nor encouraged, was also neither illegal nor unheard of at this time. Douglass himself received his first reading lessons from his mistress. Obviously, Adams was fully literate by 1846, when her correspondence with Douglass took place. In his first letter to her, he wrote “Your smartness in learning to read and write and your loving letters to me has made you double Dear to me.” This suggests that she may have learned after their acquaintance, but clearly indicates that the Douglass valued the prescence of a literate adult in his household, particularly while he was so far from home.

Adams spent the first twenty or so years of her life in the Kerr home in Easton, Maryland, a large brick house several blocks from the center of town. Her life there corresponded to those years that Douglass was hauled through town and imprisioned in the Easton jail, but neither dwelled upon this time during their correspondence if, indeed they were aware of one another druing these early years. Douglass then spend the bulk of his very early adulthood in Baltimore and began his escape from slavery there in 1837. Adams remained enslaved until 1844.

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