There was even less about their five children. Historian Rose O’Keefe put everything she could find in Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York: Their Home Was Open to All (The History Press, 2013). Though it had strong content, the book still left questions without answers. What would it have been like to live on the Underground Railroad?
For the first version of Special Delivery: From One Stop to Another on the Underground Railroad (Pyramid Press, 2014), O’Keefe took what she had learned from reading The Frederick Douglass Papers: Volume 1, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, 1841-1846, (Yale University, 2009). Those letters were selected from 5,000 pieces of correspondence available at the time. Most of the facts about the family came from the endnotes. O’Keefe used a list of events from December 1851 through December 1852 to tell a story from the point of view of one of the children. That was how Lewis, age 11, became the main character.
Figuring out when the family moved from Alexander Street to their new property was a puzzle. Douglass’s letters from the Correspondence Series had a short mention that abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s wife visited the new home on the hill in July 1852. There was no property in that area on the southeast quadrant map of 1852, only a neighbor’s house. There was no explanation of why the mortgage was filed in 1854. Whenever it was built, maybe in early 1852 after the map was printed, the house burned down in June 1872.
Research for O’Keefe’s local history books in 2005 and 2006 was mostly from books, maps and photographs. The Local History Division of the Public Library at Rochester Public Library had access to the original Rochester City Directory of 1851, and original city maps. Even though maps and images are now online, O’Keefe’s local advantage included going to the Monroe County offices to look up the original mortgage.
One of the main sources of details on family life was a slim paperback. In 2014, it was the only copy available in the library system. Dear Father: a Collection of Letters to Frederick Douglass from His Children 1859-1894, edited by Mark Anthony Cooper, Sr., (Philadelphia: Fulmore Press, 1990) That’s where the author found facts about Rosetta, Lewis, Charles, Fred Jr. and Annie.
Special Delivery has actual details to fill out a fictional story. The plot centered on Lewis Douglass, age 11, having to drive a large wagon to the family’s new home. He didn’t know the delivery was of more than a stove, but also precious human cargo. Even though a downpour, a gunman and thunder spooked the horses, Lewis succeeded because he had help.
The first edition mirrored the writing and speaking style of the letters in the Correspondence series, with illustrations from the City Directory. In the second, O’Keefe made the writing style easier for modern readers and added address pages from the City Directory, and a study guide.
As of the 2020s, there are over 10,000 Douglass family letters and mementos being documented by scholars. Notably, If I survive: Frederick Douglass and family in the Walter O. Evans collection: a 200 year anniversary, by Celeste-Marie Bernier and Andrew Taylor, (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), is the first in a series of family letters.
In Rochester, Anna Murray Douglass Academy, at 999 South Ave., stands where the original house once stood.
The second edition of Special Delivery is available online here.
Rose O’Keefe is also the author of four non-fiction history books based in Rochester.
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