Flashback Friday: Frederick Douglass’s Nebraska Sister

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Frederick Douglass. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

 By: David Bristow

Frederick Douglass is remembered for his escape from slavery and for his speeches and autobiographies through which he advocated passionately for freedom and civil rights. But he wasn’t associated with Nebraska history… until a few years ago. A series of letters uncovered in Lincoln reveal that Douglass came to Omaha in 1893 to look for his adopted sister, Ruth Cox Adams. The story is told in “Always on My Mind: Frederick Douglass’s Nebraska Sister” by Tekla Ali Johnson, John R. Wunder, and Abigail B. Anderson. The article appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Nebraska History (click the link and scroll down for an excerpt).

Douglass and Adams weren’t biological siblings, but for a while they thought they were.  The sale of slaves to different owners often split up families and obscured family relationships. Douglass, who was separated from his mother at an early age, always said this was one of slavery’s greatest cruelties.

NSHS 11940-1

A sewing box that Frederick Douglass gave to Ruth Cox Adams, now in the collections of the Nebraska History Museum. NSHS 11940-1-(1)

Adams came to live in the Douglass home after her own escape from slavery. She and Douglass eventually figured out that they weren’t biological siblings, but she remained part of the family, a sister to Frederick and his wife Anna, and an aunt to the Douglass children.

Adams eventually married and lived in different parts of the country. She and Douglass corresponded but eventually lost touch with each other. Douglass visited Omaha in 1893 ostensibly to deliver an anti-lynching speech, but mostly he wanted to find Adams. He had heard she was living in Omaha.

Unfortunately, she had already moved away by then. The following year Douglass learned that she was living with her grown children on a farm near Norfolk, Nebraska. Douglass wrote to her on March 9, 1894:

I have this day, through a Norfolk paper learned of your whereabouts and am glad to find that you are still in the land of the living. I went to Omaha in November last largely in the hope of finding but my search was in vain & I feared you had slipped away to another world without my knowledge. I made diligent inquiry for you but nobody whom I asked could tell me anything. I am now very glad to know that you still live and have not forgotten what we were to each other in our younger days. I am now 77 years old—and am beginning to feel the touch. It would do my heart good to see you [words illegible] old times [words illegible] and Charley are living. . . .

Adams replied on March 15:

I thank you very much in deed on the kind offer you maid [sic] me to make my home under your roof So long as we both shall live this is like the one you offer me fifty years ago. It would give me so much pleasure to be with you all yes we could think & talk of many things but my dear Friend that is too much happiness for me to expect now in this life for I too am growing old I have had a great deal of sickness. my [word illegible] are feeble my eyes not so good. But my hair is almost as black as it was the last time I Sawe [sic] you & that was 16 years ago I think. we saw by the papers that you was in Omaha. that was very kind in you to try to find me. It tells me I am not forgotten….

Ruth Cox Adams tombstone

Ruth Cox Adams’s grave, Wyuka Cemetery, Lincoln.

  Adams eventually moved to Lincoln, where she died in 1900. Many of her descendants still live in Lincoln.

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