About Helen Douglass (Pitts)
Suffragist, abolitionist, editor, teacher, historical association founder
Helen Pitts Douglass was an American suffragist, abolitionist, editor, and historical association founder. She was also known for being the second wife of Frederick Douglass, making her half of one of the first and most famous interracial marriages in the United States.
Helen was born in Honeoye, a village of the town of Richmond in Ontario County, New York. She was a descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Alden, who sailed to America on the Mayflower.
Pitts graduated from Mount Holyoke College (then called the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) in 1859. After the U.S. Civil War, she taught freedmen at the Hampton Institute, now known as the historically-black Hampton University, in Hampton, Virginia. She was one of many Northern abolitionists (especially from the American Missionary Association) who moved to Virginia to teach at the institution following the war.
Helen was active in the women's rights movement and co-edited The Alpha with Caroline Winslow in Washington, D.C. The Alpha was a radical feminist publication that also covered abolitionist topics. Her involvement in the women's rights movement strongly influenced other first-wave feminists.
Relationship with Frederick Douglass
In 1880, Helen moved to Uniontown (now the central part of Anacostia) and lived next door to Douglass' home, Cedar Hill. In 1882, Douglass hired her as a clerk in the office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, to which he had just been assigned. Because he was writing his autobiography (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass) and was often lecturing, Helen aided him frequently in his work.
Douglass' first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, died on August 4, 1882. After a year of depression, Douglass married Helen on January 24, 1884. They were married by Rev. Francis J. Grimké, who was also of mixed ancestry.
Despite the fact that Helen's parents, Gideon and Jane Pitts, were abolitionists, they were against the marriage because Frederick was the son of a white father and a black mother. The marriage was generally the subject of scorn by both white and black residents in the town, though the Douglasses were firm in their convictions. Helen said, "Love came to me, and I was not afraid to marry the man I loved because of his color." Frederick laughingly commented, "This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father."
Although Helen's friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton had an at times bitter relationship with Frederick, particularly over disagreements related to the Reconstruction Amendments, she became one of the couple's most vocal supporters.
Helen and Frederick were married for eleven years until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1895.
Frederick's will left Cedar Hill to Helen, but it lacked the number of witnesses needed in bequests of real estate and was ruled invalid. Helen suggested to his children -- who opposed the couple's marriage -- and their spouses that they agree to set Cedar Hill apart as a memorial to their father and deed it to a board of trustees. The children declined, insisting that the estate be sold and the money divided among all the heirs.
With borrowed money, Helen bought the place and then devoted the rest of her life to planning and establishing the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. Besides affecting passage of the law incorporating the association, she worked to raise funds to maintain the estate. For eight years, she lectured throughout the Northeast.
During the last year of her life, Helen was ill and unable to lecture, as well as discouraged by the falling off of contributions for her cause. She begged Rev. Grimké not to let her work fall by the wayside in her absence. He suggested that if the mortgage on Cedar Hill should not be paid off in her lifetime, money from the sale of the property should go to two college scholarships in her and Frederick's names. She agreed, on the condition that the scholarships be in Frederick's name only.
After her death, the $5,500 mortgage was reduced to $4,000, and the National Association of Colored Women, led by Mary B. Talbert of Buffalo, New York, raised funds to buy Cedar Hill. Administered by the National Park Service, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Home conducts tours to inform visitors of Douglass' contributions to freedom.
Helen Pitts Douglass's Timeline
October 14, 1837
Richmond, Ontario, New York, United States
January 24, 1884
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
December 1, 1903
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
South Hadley, Massachusetts, United States
Rochester, Monroe, New York, United States