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February 14: Frederick Douglass’ Lover

February 13, 2015

assing_ottilieFrederickDouglass-1848Abolitionist champion Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in February, 1818 and chose this date as his birthday. He had a twenty-eight year love affair with Ottilie Assing, a writer and journalist who was the daughter of a prominent German Jewish doctor and a Lutheran mother. Assing emigrated to the U.S. in 1852 in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolution. “Her experience as a person of Jewish descent in Germany made her especially interested in American racial issues,” writes Drew Gilpin Faust in the New York Times, and soon after her arrival she began to write on the subject for German newspapers. In 1856, she sought out Frederick Douglass in his Rochester, New York home and proposed translating his autobiography into German. Soon began an affair that included twenty-two summers that she spent in that home, despite the presence of his wife and five children. “It was to Assing that Douglass fled when he feared implication in the John Brown conspiracy,” Faust continues, “and after the Civil War broke out the two collaborated to produce parallel articles for Douglass’ Monthly and Morgenblatt urging the transformation of the conflict into a war to end slavery.” Assing’s hope that emancipation would free Douglass to leave his wife and marry her was in vain: “To a man who had been a slave and had never been acknowledged by his white father, marriage and family represented both privilege and responsibility, not simply constraining conventions to be easily overthrown.” In 1883, suffering from breast cancer, she committed suicide in a Paris park and left an inheritance to Douglass of semiannual payments from her $13,000 estate for the remaining twelve years of his life.

“Assing insisted that her papers be burned at the time of her death; Douglass — or his heirs — evidently prudently disposed of most Assing letters in his possession as well.” —Drew Gilpin Faust