Special Delivery: From One Stop to Another on the Underground Railroad
Up until recently when long-lost family mementoes came to light, there was very little information about the daily life of Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York. There was even less about their five children.
For the first version of Special Delivery, the author read The Frederick Douglass Papers: Volume 1, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, 1841-1846, (Yale University, 2009). These letters were selected from 5,000 pieces of correspondence available at the time. Most of the information about the family came from the endnotes. The author made a list of events from December 1851 through December 1852 and flipped them to tell the story from the point of view of one of the children who was at home while their father was often away. That was how Lewis, age 11, became the main character.
It was a puzzle to figure out when the family moved to the new property. What was said in Douglass’s letters from the Correspondence Series was: abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s wife visited the new home on the hill in July 1852. The mortgage in Monroe County was filed in 1854. There’s no property on the southeast quadrant map of 1852, only a neighbor’s house. The Douglass house burned down in June 1872.
Research for O’Keefe’s history books in 2005 and 2006 was mostly from hard copy. The Local History Division of the Public Library in downtown Rochester then had the original Rochester City Directory of 1851, and original city maps. Even though many items are online now, the author’s local advantage included going to the Monroe County offices and looking up the original mortgage.
One of the main sources of details on family life was Dear Father: a Collection of Letters to Frederick Douglass from His Children 1859-1894, edited by Mark Anthony Cooper, Sr., (Philadelphia: Fulmore Press, 1990) It had details about Rosetta, Lewis, Charles, Fred Jr. and Annie.
The fictional side came after O’Keefe put everything she could find in Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York: Their Home Was Open to All (Charleston, SC : The History Press, 2013). That book still left questions like, what would it have been like to live on the Underground Railroad?
Special Delivery uses local details in the plot in which Lewis Douglass, age 11, dreaded driving a large wagon to the family’s new home. He didn’t know the delivery was of more than a new stove, but also precious human cargo. Even though a downpour, a gunman and thunder spooked the horses, Lewis succeeded because he had help.
As of the 2020s, there are over 10,000 Douglass family letters and mementoes 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 : Edinburgh University Press, 2018), is the first in a series, with the rest due in the fall of 2024. Bernier, Celeste-Marie author.