“simply A Man”


Her successor, Ottilia Assing, arrived in 1856. A high-strung German intellectual initially drawn to Douglass by his autobiography (which she translated into German) and to his cause by her liberal upbringing, she too was soon in love with him. McFeely concludes that their partnership was physical as well as emotional, but prudence dictated that they live apart; she took rooms in a Hoboken, New Jersey, boarding house and lived for his infrequent visits and for the long summer afternoons when she was allowed to come to his garden in Rochester and read to him from Dickens and Goethe.

After a quarter of a century, the strain of continuing this passionate but doomed relationship evidently began to tell, and in 1881, suffering from what a physician had warned Douglass were dangerous “self-slaughterous” tendencies, she returned to Europe, from where she soon wrote to an American friend to ask that he send her a box of Douglass’s favorite cigars so that their aroma could remind her of him.

The following year Anna Douglass suffered a fatal stroke. In the spring of 1884 Douglass quietly got married again, to his secretary, Helen Pitts, an Ohio abolitionist’s daughter, twentyone years younger than he—and white. Her father announced he would not have his new son-in-law in his home. Douglass’s children, who refused to attend the wedding, never called their stepmother anything other than Mrs. Douglass. Even the black Weekly News was appalled: “Fred Douglass has married a red-head white girl. … Goodbye, black blood in that family. We have no further use for him. His picture hangs in our parlor. We will hang it in the stables.”

Douglass experienced both slavery’s brutality and its paternalism during his first twenty years, and it’s hard to tell which angered him most.

Again Douglass was unmoved. “What business has the world with the color of my wife?” he asked a friend. “Helen and I are making life go very happily.”

Julia Griffiths wrote to congratulate him on his remarriage. There seems to be no record of how Ottilia Assing took the news, but a few weeks later she left her Paris hotel, wandered into the Bois de Boulogne, and swallowed poison. In her will she asked that all her letters be destroyed and left a thirteen-thousand-dollar trust fund, its annual income earmarked for Douglass and the cause for which they had labored together so long.

His reaction to her death is unknown, but his new marriage did brighten his last years, which were otherwise mostly dark. He never stopped agitating, first successfully for black voting rights and then in vain against the betrayal of Reconstruction and the steady growth of Jim Crow, but he did so always from within the Republican party, for which he worked, as he himself once admitted, as a “fieldhand.” In return for his dogged fealty, he received a succession of largely empty honors, being named president of the already moribund Freedman’s Bank, marshal of Washington, recorder of deeds, minister to Haiti (where, according to McFeely, his enthusiasm at living in a black republic blinded him to the bloody-mindedness of its president, Florvil Hyppolite). The favored treatment he received at white Republican hands served to point up the hardships endured by other blacks; he once found himself playing croquet at the home of the Washington hostess Kate Chase Sprague, who was employing in her stable his own son-in-law.

But from time to time, even during his sad final years, Douglass displayed something of his old fire. He was asked to speak at “Colored People’s Day” at the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. The white press treated the occasion as a joke, and as Douglass, now a weary, stooped old man, began to read his speech, he was drowned out by jeering whites. He seemed genuinely shaken at first. His voice faltered. He removed his glasses and set down his manuscript. Then, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar remembered, he ran his fingers once through his white hair, straightened his back, and began to speak in the huge, echoing voice of his youth, “compelling attention, drowning out the catcalls as an organ would a penny whistle.”

“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem,” Douglass said. “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution. … We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it.”