Frederick Douglass, Family, and Biography

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

Frederick Douglass III, grandson of the noted Abolitionist (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

A flurry of recent scholarship on Frederick Douglass has broadened coverage of his life to include that of his family.1 Given that scholarly turn, it seems appropriate to ask: what model of family best pertains to Frederick Douglass? I would like to suggest that Toni Morrison presents a provocative response in Song of Solomon (1977), her richly imagined novel about the history of an African American family coming—continuously coming—out of enslavement. One seemingly incidental moment signifies powerfully: protagonist Milkman Dead, scion of the patriarchal branch of the Dead family tree, makes his first entry into the wrong-side-of-the-tracks home of his paternal aunt, Pilate Dead, the family matriarch who lives with her unmarried daughter Reba and Reba’s teenaged daughter Hagar. Pilate takes one look at Milkman and introduces him to Hagar as “your brother.” Reba immediately corrects “brother” with “cousin,” yet Pilate stands her ground. In effect, she stands the novel’s ground: she embodies a collective ethos forged by once enslaved African American families from the crucible of historical disrupture, geographical displacement, lost or refracted memory, skewed generational lines, and fluid gender roles.

So, too, did the Douglasses. Charles Remond Douglass, youngest son of Frederick Douglass, considered his family a “dismembered” one after his father fled the United States for safe haven in Britain following John Brown’s October 1859 assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Yet when his father’s long-lost brother Perry Bailey Downs and family, sold down to Texas, showed up two years after Juneteenth 1865 at the Douglass family house in Rochester, New York, Charles responded dismissively, “I don’t understand in what way those people you have at home are related to you. Is that Mr. Downs your half brother? From what I have heard of their conduct, I should be afraid even to have them in the same neighborhood and more especially when you are away in the winter months.”2 What kind of family, he seemed to be asking, were the Douglasses, or the Downses, or the (ancestral) Baileys—or whatever their name?

I would like to offer the term—over and against Charles’s—that they were a “re-membered family.” To “re-member” was the immediate response of myriads of post-Civil War African American families seeking to reclaim lost or scattered members into a reconstituted collective. The impulse was most urgent in the years immediately following the cataclysm of slavery and warfare, but it continued long after. For many families, like the Deads of Song of Solomon, it continues to the present moment. In talking in this context about the Baileys/Douglasses originating in Talbot County, Eastern Shore, Maryland, I mean a more inclusive, loosely structured, fluidly organized unit than the normative nuclear family in which siblings and cousins, and possibly adoptees as well, might relate with one another with varying degrees of interchangeability.

Such a family model would be more likely to transcend geographical and chronological limits that often shape and define nuclear family, as well as conventional single-figure biography. In effect, taking account of family on this basis expands the practice of biography longitudinally and latitudinally. Longitudinally, it shifts life span from an individual’s mortal limits to a family’s unbroken continuity, rendering the flow of time discernible as an ongoing, embodied quality and quite possibly a reversible one, as later generations retrieve their family past via memory (a pattern traceable in this instance via Bailey/Douglass family scrapbooks, oral and written testimony, and family websites). Latitudinally, this model broadens the field of scrutiny by introducing a fuller array of agents, places, and events that combine to form a more nearly composite whole. Its overall goal is ambitious: to reconstruct and remember a family comprehensively both from within and without as a historically continuous entity.

Drawing on this rationale and definition of African American family, I would like to speak more directly, if only sketchily, about how this composite genealogical model of family might figure in a biographically-posed discussion of Frederick Douglass and family. I will speak in terms of three fundamental factors—geography, chronology, and media—and explain how I think they can be used to enhance the writing of African American biography.

Geography

What I will call the Frederick Bailey/Frederick Douglass family straddled the nation’s chief dividing line, the Mason-Dixon. Once Douglass escaped in 1838 from the border city of Baltimore, Maryland, he would not cross back over the Mason-Dixon until well into the Civil War or return “home” to Maryland’s Eastern Shore until 1877. Meanwhile, the remainder of his family—his many siblings and cousins—continued to live their lives on the other side of the line and, with few exceptions, would do so throughout the nineteenth century. Increasingly after the war, however, the Baileys/Douglasses became a cross-sectional family, a period in which Douglass widened the periphery of his frequent travels, venturing as far south as Savannah, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. More to the point, he returned repeatedly to his native Eastern Shore, including visits to his siblings and cousins in Talbot and Caroline Counties. Drawn irresistibly to his origins, in the last several years of his life he contemplated buying property in Talbot County and was preparing to move into a vacation house on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, near Annapolis, through whose bay-facing window he could look east onto the grounds of his childhood.

Now, to make my point about geography and family more broadly, let me say a few words about one crucial episode in the family’s life that has generally eluded discussion: the participation of the family—in the sense that I am using the term—in the Civil War. The story of the Douglass sons’ service in northern Black regiments is well known; an equally encompassing story, however, is yet to be told about the military history of Douglass’s Tuckahoe cousin Stephen Bailey and Stephen’s eldest son George W. Bailey (not to mention, the lives of the Baileys who remained on the Anthony farm near Tuckahoe Creek). Stephen and George fought, respectively, with the 9th and 19th United States Colored Troops, two of the African American regiments organized in late 1863 from Maryland and Virginia and populated heavily by ex-slaves released by their masters to the Union Army. Their service, which included the capture of Richmond and lasted uninterruptedly, respectively, through late 1866 and early 1867, provides an additional dimension to consideration of the Bailey/Douglass family and the Civil War. So does the story of their lives upon their return home after the war, when Stephen purchased eighty acres on the far side of Tuckahoe Creek and established the Bailey family farm.

Chronology

We all know Douglass’s life span, but the life of a family expands the subject unit of biography longitudinally beyond the life and extent of the individual. The life story it tells is multigenerational, and its unit of time may be generational rather than particular segments of an individual life. Whereas a biography of Frederick Douglass may have an end date of 1895, a Douglass family biography has no necessary end date and may even continue to the present moment. If it does, it ties present to past more fluidly than does conventional individually-based biography by making additional room for the lives of successive generations in its narrative. This loosening of chronology may well have consequence not just for the scope of representation but also for biographical narratology.

Media

One consequence of the digital revolution is the expansion of the evidentiary basis of biography. Access to digital sources has greatly expanded our capacity to recover the life stories of common people. As a result, we can now far more readily than in the past tell the life stories of obscure women and men, such as the Bailey cousins and other “related” family members, and integrate them into the composite family history. The cast as well as the scope of biography consequently broaden; so do the social networks that surround and, to an extent, constitute biographical subjects.

In addition to enabling an enhanced body of evidence, the digital revolution increases the ability of researchers to treat the writing of biography over a multigenerational span as a process-centered, mediated dynamic—fluid, interactive, and both prospective and retrospective (consonant with the dynamic of family existence). As a result, we may, to a certain degree, be able to turn the generational transmission of family heritage into both a tool for accumulating evidence as well as itself a central topic of investigation. In this sense, we may treat family as a living phenomenon in which the present not only derives from the past but corresponds with it and even plays a role in its formation.

Altogether, the practice of family biography, conceived and shaped in accordance with these guiding ideas, seems to me to offer the prospect of making the past more proximate—or less “dead,” to use Morrison’s operative term—to present generations.

  1.  Celeste-Marie Bernier and Andrew Taylor, If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018); David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018); Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  2.  Charles Douglass to Frederick Douglass, August 16, 1867, reel 2, frames 303-04, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ezra Greenspan

Ezra Greenspan is Professor of English and the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Chair in Humanities at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of several books, including 'George Palmer Putnam: Representative American Publisher' (2000) and 'William Wells Brown: An African-American Life' (2014). His current project is a multigenerational family biography to be called 'The Lives and Times of Frederick Douglass and His Family: A Composite Biography.'

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