Monday, June 28, 2010
In the interim, I went to Philadelphia for a day. The temperature reached somewhere in the upper nineties and there I was, wandering around looking for the historic marker for the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society. First, I had to ask an expert; and was fortunate enough to find one who knows at least two books worth of black history in Philadelphia. He pointed the way. Sadly, said expert was not an employee of a certain parks service visitors' center desk, nor was said expert's work familiar at the park service visitors' center desk...but I digress.
Also, in defense of certain parks service and their visitors' center desk, most people probably come up asking "where is the Liberty Bell?" not "where is the historic marker for the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society."
Anyway, expert or not, one must remember the correct address, and consult notes when one does not, in order to actually find a place. I made the mistake of thinking that the address was 2nd and Arch streets, so I hiked and hiked and hiked, past Independence Hall, past the long long line for the Liberty Bell, past Ben Franklin's grave, further and further all the way to 2nd Street. Then, I walked up and down 2nd street. "Where?" I wondered, thinking that the heat had induced delusions and I was missing the rather large building that was supposed to stand on the site of the society. Then, I sang, "It's hot as HELLL in PhilaDELLphia."*
I also took out my map, where I had put a big blue dot on the address of the marker. FIFTH and Arch, dammit! FIFTH! All I can say in my own defense it that numbers were involved, and I don't do numbers.
Anyway, I turned around, and hiked all the way back to fifth and Arch. What do you know? There it was! The marker to the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society!:
The marker stands in front of this building:Which is this:The mint (mmmm....mints!) is across the street from this:You probably can't tell from the image, but that is Benjamin Franklin's grave. Scroll back up a few paragraphs and look at the list of the things that I passed on the way to 2nd and Arch streets. Yes, I am that clueless.
The odd angle of this image is not any intentional artistry. The cemetery charges $2 admission. I'm cheap, so I just reached through the fence and took the picture.
Then, I needed some air conditioning, and perhaps some water. The Independence Mall is in the block across the street from Ben's bones and catty cornered to the Mint, so I drug my wilting body over. What is the first thing that you see when you walk in? Gift shop!
In the gift shop, there were, of course, more entries to the Online Museum of Historical Kitsch.
You can purchase a Ben Franklin Action figure, complete with kite (I'm rather amazed that there is not a marker somewhere that says "Near this site, Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment.")
Or perhaps you prefer your Benjamins softer: The one on the left is a finger puppet. The one in the center is a bear Ben holding a Liberty Bell. Notice the key on the kite that the one on the right holds. Again, I think of 1776, the scene in which John Adams says that no one will remember him, they will just think that Benjamin Franklin struck the ground with his lightening rod and George Washington sprung forth, fully grown and on his horse. Then, the three of them -- Franklin, Washington, and the horse -- won Independence together. Except, in this gift shop scenario, just Ben won the war. Even George gets short shrift, probably because he owned slaves, and John is only mentioned to contrast his non-slaveowning with George's slaveowning.
After the Revolution, everyone (except George) installed a hidey-hole in their homes to help fugitive slaves. The End!
Seriously, that story is for the next post.
Meanwhile, when I started this post, I only intended to put up this picture because yesterday was the anniversary of Stonewall. I was stuck in the Independence Mall for quite a while because the clouds opened up. Then, heading back to the hotel, I passed this marker:
You seldom see any indication of GLBTQ people represented in public history sites, so this one was surprising. There it is, with Independence Hall in the background, showing that freedom was not won in the American Revolution, and that contradictions between freedom and the lack of it right there in the streets of Philadelphia are still central to the American experience.
*It's so wrong, so terribly wrong, but I do love that musical.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Not really, although I did travel roughly along the route of the Erie Canal for about an hour and a half. I also travelled through about every type of weather short of snow. Fortunately, the points at which I had to actually be outside were all dry, and I made it into the archive all safe and dry.
When I got to the archive, the archivist told me that all of their Douglass letters are online. Trust me, I'm aware of that and LOVE it! However, I want to find letters that talk about him, around him, or about his family. I'm looking for context, which will not necessarily be in the correspondence that directly includes him. The archivist looked at me dubiously. "Well, good luck," she said in that way that says you are on a fool's mission.
I started in the correspondence much earlier than I expected to find references to Douglass, partly on the off-chance that I find that smoking -- or maybe just warm -- gun in a letter that says, "oh, yeah, and there is this fresh young guy, Douglass, that we have to see." Of course, I haven't found it (yet!), but I have discovered that these women are way more chatty in these letters than any of those in the collection that I was in yesterday. Seriously, you could reconstruct whole Friends' Meetings on any given Sunday just through these letters, including who was ill, and with what symptoms, and what they read during the week.
The research through these documents should have gone much faster, except I became enchanted by a set of letters from Jeremiah B. Sanderson, a black barber and abolitionist in New Bedford, and William C. Nell, a black abolitionist in Boston. What these letters are doing in this particular collection, tucked in with all of the news of extended family illnesses and deaths and church going, is beyond me, since neither Sanderson nor Nell were related to this family.
Still, Sanderson had me completely charmed. His writing has editorial interjections with such expressions as "ha! ha!" and "humph!" Really! For instance, he writes to Nell, "Dad & Mamy Hogan (as we used to call them when in Boston ) I am told are coming down tomorrow for the purpose of seeing their children," but adds, "(ha! ha! if they’d wait a little longer I might say and their children’s children* -- cut off the *-ren – and to rectify my mistake – ahem! presumptive evidence of this is (so I reckon) pretty strong)."
He also writes another letter bemoaning all of the weddings that he must attend. He describes one between a Mr. Morton and Miss Ruth Williams, writing, "She’s quite a small body so that he being somewhere in the neighborhood of six foot six can sincerely be said to have taken a better half." Then he goes on to say that he has "long entertained a favorable opionion of Matrimony" and that he sees the best marriages as being founded on friendship. "Oh! the sympathy of affections of friendship," he writes, "who -- that has felt it – cannot witness its soothing influence--- like as dew to the drooping, wilting flower –having the effect to resuscitate--" He then hinted to Nell, "think you i could effect any thing in that way in Boston -- ahem!"
Sanderson became a fairly important figure in the New Bedford abolitionist movement, and a friend of Frederick Douglass. Incidentally, one of his letters had the first mention in passing of Douglass. Sanderson also moved to Sacramento, California, in 1850. There he became an AME minister and a school teacher. Yet, I wondered, did he ever find that special friend with whom he could "enjoy the Society of those we love, and by whom we are loved"?
Yes, he did. Her name was Catherine. She was one of a family of fugitive slaves who escaped from their master while he was in Newport, and moved to New Bedford. They had six children.
Alas, the library closed and I had to leave. Before I set out for the outskirts of the city to find a cheap (and, trust me, it is cheap) motel, I noticed that a cemetery shared a property line with the archives. I know this cemetery, although I haven't been there in nearly a decade. I drove over there, parked my car, and continued my pilgrimage on foot.
No sooner had I set foot out of my car than I saw this:Yeah. Small pine boxes. When you see that in a cemetery, you get a little worried. "Walk on, Clio. Walk on," I told myself.
I did, but in the wrong direction. I went toward the boxes. Here is what I found:
Not coffins, right? I mean, after all, they are modern boards, without any stains of embalming fluid or rotting corpses, or even any bottoms. What they are, I have no idea, but they didn't contain the tiny skeletons that I first imagined.*
Further down the path, I found this:
It looks rather like the dirt of a grave is sifting out. Yes, again, I know that the slab is not a grave, and that the graves go in the other direction. Still.
Ah, but here is the object of our pilgrimage (as if you didn't know):
Just down this way:
And this way: Here it is:
This is the Great Man's grave (the flowers were already there):This is the monument that Lewis and Charles Douglass commissioned to honor the Douglass family, specifically their mother, Anna, and their baby sister, Annie.
This is the side dedicated to Anna: This is the side dedicated to Annie, who died when she was 10. Frederick Douglass was hiding out in England in the wake of the John Brown raid, and hurried home when he learned of her death. The entire family was distraught. Annie was not buried in this plot and the location of her grave was forgotten until a local historian discovered its record about five or six years ago. Annie's body lies in the Porter family plot (which I haven't found, but if you scroll up to the tiny "coffin" picture, you will see a vault in the background. That vault is labeled "Porter." I just don't know if it is the Porters, yet.)
This is Helen Pitts Douglass's grave:
Helen wanted to be buried in Anacostia, D.C., on the grounds of Cedar Hill, and to have Frederick's body moved there, as well. That ended up being impractical. Also, I imagine the children had an issue with that, since their mother is buried here. To have their father's body moved to be with his newer, white wife, while leaving behind the body of his first, black wife and their mother, was not a politic move on Helen's part.
Still, you can see the family politics in the layout of the grave site:Frederick lies there in the center. Anna's body probably lies to his left, but her monument, placed by her sons, rises above the whole plot, at the head of and between Frederick's and presumably Anna's graves. Helen's stone, the wordiest of the three, lies to the right of Douglass, as if tacked on to the site.
A peephole to Frederick's coffin, thanks to a chipmunk:No, I did not look!
I stood at the foot of the Douglass graves and contemplated the skeletons lying six feet below me. I remember that this is the Burned-Over District, that this is the district in which Spiritualism thrived, including in homes not too far from this very spot. I don't believe in all that, but just in case, I asked them to forgive me for any inaccuracies that I write. Also, please don't haunt me.
*Yeah, I know the thousands of scientific things wrong with that imagining, but it was an imagining made in a split second upon seeing little, coffin-shaped boxes in a graveyard.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Some of what I went through was general correspondence, mostly from people asking for money. I thought for sure that Abby Kelly's correspondence to this guy would be juicy, since she could take a dude down when she tried, but -- alas! -- she was not giving me the goods like she did when she wrote to people in Boston. In fact, I have decided that male correspondence is not nearly as interesting as female correspondence. Women tend to chat in better detail than the men. I'm going to have to go through the women's letters next time.
Before I left for the archive today, I browsed in the Library of Congress's online Douglass collection. I came to two conclusions. The first is related to several other things that I had been reading, specifically Maria Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines, but also my thinking about Anna Murray Douglass and now about Rosetta Douglass Sprague (Douglass's daughter). This bears more discussion, but I will say here that I think that Douglass made the women who cared about him the most very sad. You could perhaps go back even to his mother and grandmother. If you loved him dearly, he would make you quite unhappy. I think his second wife may have been the exception, and even she had to endure ostracism, criticism, and the alienation of her entire family. That was outside of their relationship. Inside, they seemed to have been happy. The other women, not so much.
My second conclusion is that, at one time, there existed a correspondence between Anna Murray Douglass, his first wife, and other people. Anna got by without reading or writing. Still, in the 19th century, if a person were married to a travelling man, she might have some thoughts or news that she wanted communicated. In the Harriet Bailey/Ruth Cox Adams correspondence, there is a letter from her to Adams, dictated to Rosetta. Frederick also writes to Harriet, referencing a letter that he had enclosed for Anna that Adams was supposed to read aloud to her. As I read other letters, I kept noticing that little ending everyone would put in their correspondence, "Mother and I unite in sending our love," or "Mother begs to be remembered," or "send Mother my love," and so forth. All of that made me wonder about Anna Douglass with her husband being on tour so often and, later, with her children far from home, especially when her sons were at war. She must have wanted to say more to them, and she must have wanted to hear more from them. Did she perhaps maintain a connection by having someone write letters for her?
Then, at the end of the day, back in the Library of Congress, I found a very choice letter from Charles Douglass, one of the Douglass sons, to his father. The contents of the letter alone outline some very tricky dysfunction going on between the Douglass's and Rosetta's husband, Nathan Sprague. At this point, 1869, Rosetta and Nathan with their three children were living in Anna and Frederick's house in Rochester. Nathan was causing some trouble involving his inability to be employed and also a little pride was being thrown about amongst the men. I'm still piecing this bit of dysfunction together, but it comes down to Charles becoming very frustrated that neither he nor his father could get any information from home that had not been filtered through the Spragues.
"Sprague has the advantage of Mother," Charles wrote to Frederick, "he writes, and if Mother wants a letter written she has to go to Rosetta, and there it goes, and you only get one side of what transpires." He clearly became frustrated, continuing, "I can't hear from home when you are absent because Mother cant write and I suppose Rosetta wont write to me for her. I write once in a while but never receive any reply."
So, there I have it. The correspondence may not have been extensive, but from time to time it seems that Anna did use Rosetta to write and read letters for her.
Still, I imagine a very lonely existence for her, isolated from her family as the years passed. She would trust Rosetta, her daughter, with private business, but probably not anyone else. Who else would she have? If Rosetta were not there, then who would she turn to? Also, she would have had to edit her comments in order not to alienate Rosetta. If Nathan, Rosetta's husband, were as roundly unpopular in the family as it seems he was, and if Anna shared this opinion, how could she appeal to her sons or her husband?
Tomorrow, I take a long drive to another archive. I may have pissed off the archivist there already. I received a very terse response to my request for materials, letting me know that they would prefer more time to pull the collections. I get that. I'd have been pissed off if I were her, too. Mea culpa.
Oh, and I forget yet again! Notorious PhD reminded me that I did not let everyone know this major bit of news because it came right as I dashed out the door for the Little Berks. I am signing a book contract with a big deal press based solely on my proposal! The readers and the publisher all adored the idea. By "adored" I mean that they said things I don't think anyone has ever said about an idea of mine. I'm still jumping between ecstasy and panic. Yea, someone wants to publish the book! Yipes! Now I have to write it!
Friday, June 11, 2010
Before I left, my state notified me that I required an emissions test. It is a drive-thru deal; but, as you can see here, lots of people were driving through:
I'm thinking that this poor guy gets a good lungful of exhaust every day:
Sadly, my poor, aging car -- which has to hang in until the student loans or paid off, or until we can start getting cost-of-living increases instead of pay cuts -- failed. With no time to visit the mechanic before I left, and with a deadline of September 29th to get the situation fixed and retested, I decided to hand the matter over to Scarlett and deal with the situation "tomorrow." Now you know that I have also been polluting up four states over the past week, as well.
Long trips on interstates start out exciting. "I'm going somewhere!" I think. The, I hop up and down, and jump in the car, eagerly pressing my face toward the windsheild. If I had a tail, I'd probably wag it. I'm as bad as a dog.
Dogs, however, can curl up and take a nap once the newness has worn off the journey. People must entertain themselves in other ways. Audio books are good for this, provided that they are, in fact, interesting books and that your audio equipment doesn't break down. Guess what happened to me? Alas, the cd player broke down so I could no longer listen to this hilarious Christopher Moore novel about King Lear's fool, and the book on cassette became ever more tedious with each tape. That meant I had to find amusement along the road side.
Here, for instance, I began to drool.
Mmmmm.....candy! Candy attractions, candy medical center, candy exit!
Hee! "Frack." "Frack-ville." (That's a Battlestar Galactica reference for those of you who are not versed in cable sci-fi, or who are not twelve.)
Speaking of t.v. series:
I also like the name of the other place. "Moosic."
Am I in Italy?
This has no significance.
Despite my Douglass research, I continue to associate most of central New York with the Five Nations in the mid-eighteenth century. The interstate runs roughly the same route and the Mohawk River, which first entered my consciousness through such novels as Drums Along the Mohawk and Deerslayer.
When I first entered graduate school, that was what I studied because I was fascinated with this encounter between cultures and I wanted to know more about the indigenous side. Much for the same reasons that I became attracted to African American history, I was attracted to this history because it seemed like a secret story, one that I was not supposed to know about, or care about, and certainly not study. I beleive that certain people who were allegedly in charge of my education did not think that this story was one to be studied, either -- but then, that itself is another story.
Alas, the turns of my life and education took me to the nineteenth century and the exploration of slavery and abolition. Still, whenever I drive through this area of the country, I don't think "Burned Over District." I think, "what was it like then? When the Five Nations controlled this area?"
Then, I see the names of the rest stops. The Mohawk Service Area:
The Indian Castle service area:
These sorts of things make me think of Peter Gabriel's song, San Jacinto. That song came to mind, too, when I was driving through southern Ohio and saw every other business named the "Shawnee" this or the "Tecumseh" that. Even going through Pennsylvania, there were "Indian" caves, and a billboard had a cartoon native character in its advertisement. At the same time, I hope that other travellers see these signs and think something like, "Indian Castle? What does that mean? Indians had castles?" Then, they will go look it up.
Of course, all things do lead back to Frederick Douglass with me. This area was also known, during the American Revolution, as part of an American genocidal western campaign against the Five Nations called "Sullivan's Expedition." Sullivan's troops massacred a Seneca village on the site that is now the village of Honeoye, where they set up a fort. Later, the American government used this land to pay off Revolutionary War soldiers. One of the benefactors of this payment was Captain Peter Pitts. His sons moved in in the 1780s, and white settlement from New England followed beginning in the 1790s. Peter Pitts had a son named Gideon, who also had a son named Gideon, who had a daughter named Helen. In 1884, Helen Pitts married Frederick Douglass.
Moving on, many hours later I entered Massachusetts. Only a few exits before the one to Mt. Holyoke, I saw this:
I hear you thinking, "What? Clouds? Am I missing something here?"
No, I missed it. You see, there is an air base there in western Massachusetts, and the runway ends at the interstate. There I was, driving along, minding my own business and singing "Just like the white wing dove..." at the top of my lungs when VROOM! A jet fighter flew right across my bow. It came up at a very low angle, directly in front of me. The sound felt like it went right through my body and my heart almost stopped. As I passed, another took off behind me.
Of course I grabbed my camera. Alas, despite the fact that both were in the frame when I snapped that picture and this one:
They moved faster than the shutter speed. It was, in the true sense of the word, awesome.
A short time later, after following Gretl the Garmin's ill-chosen route along the same path as I used to take when I had a class at Mt. Holyoke during my unfortunate professional detour, I arrived at my destination for the Little Berks.
Lovely, is it not? Seriously, when that one intrepid student does, in fact, build the time machine so he or she can go back in time and do all of the things that will get them a better grade at the end of the semester, I'm then going to take it for a test ride, go back to the early '80s, find my younger self, smack her, and say, "here's what you are going to do." Going to a women's college will be on that list.
Last, but not least, here is Gretl the Garmin:
She may now be mute, but she can still get me where I'm going.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Why did I move into lower end hotels after the Little Berks ended? Well, the Little Berks was held at Mount Holyoke; and, as luck would have it, the second Mrs. Douglass -- the white one -- Helen Pitts, went there from 1857-1859, with her sister Jane. Turns out, Emily Dickinson went there for a single year a decade earlier, and Frances Perkins and Wendy Wasserstein went there, as well; but I'm not writing a book about them.
Sadly, the main building from Helen's time had burned in 1898, leaving nothing behind but fragments of brick walls. What the Mt. Holyoke archives and library have are mostly published material and an alumnae file on the two Pitts sisters. Still, I transcribed everything that I could, and my have some little bits to pull together about this period of her life.
Since Mt. Holyoke was founded to provide middle class young women with an education equal to that of their brothers, who would be getting all of the education dollars in middle class families, I can get an idea of Helen's class status, or at least the amount of money that Gideon Pitts, there father, was willing to contribute to educate his daughters. Also, since the young women were being trained to enter teaching or missionary service -- and the school's principals at that time were very proud of the women who went to Hawaii, China, and (gasp!) Persia to be missionaries and (although they did not put it this way) agents of American empire. This gives more dimension to Helen, especially since she went down to Norfolk, Virginia, to teach freedmen during the Civil War. With abolitionist parents and this sort of education, I can sort of get an idea of her own value system.
I need now to find out more about her time in Norfolk, first by discovering exactly which agency she worked for, since I've seen two or three mentioned, none of which are the Freedman's Bureau and the most likely of which is the American Missionary Association. She only spent about two years there because she became deathly ill and was confined to her bed for about two years after.
She did several interesting things after Douglass died. The first was to go on the lecture circuit speaking about the Convict Labor System and discussing the abuse of the unequal application of the law in regard to black men and women. She noted that corporate crimes were hardly noticed as such, whereas black men and women were rounded up and incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy. That was in the 1890s.
The second was to apply for admission to the Mayflower Society. She was, in fact, descended from John and Priscilla Alden, but the Society rejected her because she had married (gasp!) a black man. So what if he had been recognized as the most preeminent black man of the 19th century, he was still black. I think that one of the things that she was symbolically trying to do in her application was to connect black American history to this most revered story of white American history through herself as widow of Douglass.
Another thing that I found interesting was Douglass's response to both black and white critics of his marriage to Helen. Everyone -- white and black -- was horrified that he didn't find a woman "of his own race." His responded that, had he married a black woman, he still wouldn't be with "his own race." He said that, with a white father and a black mother, he was neither one nor the other. As the product of miscegenation and in the black/white dichotomy as race had been constructed in America, any marriage for him was miscegenation. (Of course, then, what would have he argued had his new wife also been the child of a white and a black parent? What might the lighter skinned black women thought of that?) What I think he was doing here, just as he did when he openly confronted the reality of his bi-racial parentage, was to point out the lie of the construction of race.
I have to think about this more methodically -- since this really is a stream of consciousness here. Still, one of the constant stories of his life, one that makes his sex life relevant to his public life, is one of miscegenation. This isn't the story that dudes like to focus on: "Yeah! Fred! Tap that!" Nor is this the story of racial betrayal. Running under his story is the exploitation of black women's bodies, the restrictions on the contact between black men and white women, the biological and political ramifications of interracial sex, and his defiance of the white definition of "black" not only in abolition and civil rights, but also in his choice of personal companions.
Which puts the first Mrs. Douglass, Anna Murray, in a very cruel position because, in this story, she, as the dark-skinned black woman (and, I suspect the child or grandchild of an African -- her father's name was supposed to have been Bambarra), probably experienced her husband's defiance of racial definitions as a rejection of her. In fact, all of her husband's aspirations -- racial, class, political, sexual -- probably felt very much like a rejection of what she felt that she stood for, of her very being.
Anyway, I hope to gradually post images from my journeys north and east this past week, including the story of the Emily Dickinson haunted house (not really haunted, it just felt like that).