This post was written by Matthew Murphy, Head of Cataloging and Metadata
One of the jewels of our American Historical Manuscript Collection (which is a “collection of collections” consisting of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections) is the Frederick Douglass letters, which consists of ten letters sent and received by Frederick Douglass between 1851 and 1894. In the letters, Douglass speaks about his lectures, the state of the country, and the horrors of slavery and the lasting effect it had on men and women. Correspondents include family members like his daughter Rosetta, the general public, and fellow abolitionists like Samuel E. Sewall, Theodore Parker and Theodore Tilton. In a particular letter to Tilton, dated Rochester, N.Y., September 2, 1867, Douglass discusses reconnecting with his brother Perry Bailey (a.k.a. Perry Downs), whom he had not seen in 40 years:
“My poor Brother Perry– after a bondage of fifty-six years deeply marked by the hardships and sorrows of that hateful condition– and after a separation from me drawing forty years, as complete as if he had lived on another planet…”
Douglass continues that Perry and his family showed up on his doorstep two months earlier, and how he immediately welcomed them into his home. Douglass reminisced how Perry “…had carried me on his shoulders a many times…he who defended me from the assaults of bigger boys, when I needed defence.”
One can scarcely imagine the effect of having been separated from a family member at such a young age– during the bondage of slavery, no less– only to be reunited four decades later. In her work Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman (2013), author L. Diane Barnes states how “…in February of 1867, [Douglass] received a communication from a man named Perry Downs, proclaiming himself to be his brother. Separated from the family more than forty years earlier, Douglass’s oldest brother Perry Bailey had apparently ended up in Texas, where his wife had been sold. Douglass arrived home from a Virginia lecture in early July to find his brother waiting, along with his wife Maria and four children. He was elated to be reunited with Perry…”
Upon welcoming Perry and his family into his home, Douglass got right to work building a cottage for them, which he describes to Theodore Tilton:
“I have now completed for him and his family a snug little cottage, on my own ground–where my dear old slavery-scarred and long-lost brother may spend in peace with his family the remainder of his days.”
Perry and his family lived in the cottage for the next two years, and returned to Maryland’s Eastern Shore (where Douglass’ sister Eliza lived) in 1869. The Baileys continued to struggle financially, and when Perry passed away in 1880, Douglass paid his funeral expenses (Barnes, 108).
Although a bittersweet event in the lives of both Frederick Douglass and his brother Perry Bailey, this letter is nonetheless a testament to the power of family, and its abilities to transcend the physical and emotional scars that slavery left on African Americans.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.