When Frederick Douglass moved from Rochester, NY, to Washington, DC, in 1872, he left behind a lot of friends and supporters. But he didn’t lose touch. In fact, his moving away means we can see the nature of those relationships more clearly through the letters he exchanged with them.
Frederick and his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, corresponded with the Blackalls for many years. For the most part they are cordial and chatty letters about everyday life - the weather, the health of family members, invitations to visit. They describe family gatherings - Fred playing violin with his grandson, the Blackalls vacationing on Frontenac Island on the St. Lawrence River. Some highlight big events, like the Chicago World’s Fair and President Garfield’s election, and others comment on the politics of the day.
Most of the letters between Burton F. (Frank) Blackall and Frederick were about business; Frank looked after rental properties that Frederick owned back in Rochester. Little has been written about Douglass the real estate investor, but he owned a fair number of properties. With these letters, it’s more than just his name on a plat map or deed. They show the typical wranglings of being a landlord - finding good tenants, fixing old pipes, collecting overdue rent. So far the letters I’ve tracked down are from Frank to Fred and show the mild frustration Frank went through being the go-between:
“I have held this money for several days in hopes that I could collect the rent due you from the Bond Street property and remit that also, but I am sadly disappointed as I know you will be also,” Frank wrote on Sept. 29, 1877. “The truth of it is that the tenant is a ‘dead beat.’ We will never be able to collect a cent from him. He is all packed up and ready to move out. The sooner he goes, the better.”
Some things never change. I’ll write lots more on all the great letters I’ve found!
Originally published 9/27/2012
Filed under frederick douglass rochester ny Helen Pitts Douglass Blackall