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Friends and Collaborators Lost in History

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 2

German society in the mid-1800's held little room for an intelligent and independent female social activist. These circumstances, and the prevalent anti-Semitism of the time, led journalist Ottilie Assing to move from her German homeland to the United States. Here she hoped to support herself as a correspondent, writing about life in America for the prestigious German newspaper Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser. Much of Europe was experiencing social unrest and the German people especially were eager to learn more about the New World's fledgling democratic experiment as it teetered on the brink of Civil War. Assing intended to bring this information to her readers, as well as details about African-American life. Feeling an outcast herself, she identified with the African-American experience, becoming a spokesperson for abolition even when she lived abroad.

Soon after she arrived in 1856, Assing arranged to interview Frederick Douglass and to tell about her writing and her desire to translate his autobiography into German. They met, and the intellectual gifts they shared developed into a long-term collaborative relationship. Assing spent the next 22 summers with the Douglass family, working on articles, the translation project, and tutoring his children. Douglass' wife, Anna, who was somewhat older than Douglass and illiterate, was ill much of the time. She shared little of her husband's intellect or interests, and seemed unable to cope with the large household. Assing, on the other hand, was a passionate abolitionist, was politically astute, and contributed a great deal to Douglass' work.  This collaboration, however, had an unhappy ending.

Shortly after learning she had cancer, Assing committed suicide and left Frederick Douglass as the sole heir in her will.  While their friendship was known at the time, little passed into history about it, or so we thought.  For most of their 28 year friendship, they wrote each other almost weekly. No letters from Douglass to Assing survive.  And Douglass, or his descendants, destroyed all but a few from her. The most convincing information of the collaboration comes from letters Assing wrote to her sister which were recently discovered in Germany. This correspondence, combined with her Morgenblatt articles and other contemporaneous events, confirm the extent of the Douglass-Assing relationship.

The facts surrounding the discovery of Assing's letters to her sister are almost as amazing as what they describe. Assing's uncle, husband of her Jewish aunt, was not Jewish himself but was a German aristocrat and government official. When their aunt died, Assing's sister, Ludmilla cared for him until he died. Ludmilla saved her sister's letters from America, and on her death these papers were combined with their uncle's official documents and given to a local university. Much later, to save German historical records from being destroyed during World War II, the Nazi government hid thousands of library and university collections in protective bunkers. Just a few years ago, Ludmilla's papers were found. In a historical twist of fate, the Nazi government had inadvertently protected the letters documenting the intellectual collaboration between a German Jewish journalist and the most prominent African-American of the 19th Century.

Assing's letters give insight into the mid-1800 world of America and Europe. In particular, they tell about the life and choices available to foreign women and African-American men in what at the time was the most democratic country on earth. They tell about Assing and Douglass, two exceptional individuals who made undeniable contributions to society, contributions made possible because of their friendship.

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