Ruth Cox Adams is best known as the adopted sister of Frederick Douglass, but digging into her remarkable life has meant discovering a series of stories and a number of communities that are fascinating on their own merits.
The most striking feature of her life is her constant mobility. As such, it is a story that can be told by examining the ongoing tension between building and participating in a familiar community and moving on to a new one. More often than many people do, Ruth looked at her situation and decided that she should and could move on. Taken as a whole, these choices show a woman who time and again aptly read her current situation and saw its strengths and failings and, when the balance was out of her favor, sought out and seized different opportunities, a woman who knew her priorities, a woman who had the optimism, imagination, and fortitude to repeatedly make a better future for herself and her family.
Official records do a wonderful job of showing when those choices happened and how they were settled, but leave many questions about what motivated each decision point and each solution. A number of other historians have already explored the available primary documents that directly refer to Ruth and her family and give the basic outline of their lives. This project builds on that work by studying the larger communities in which Ruth and her family lived, in an attempt to understand how these communities both reflected and influenced her experiences and choices. In some cases, that means very large communities – cursory research on the entire African American community in Springfield, MA, for instance – in others it means smaller groups – immediate neighbors, Springfield jewelry manufacturers, etc.
Some of Ruth’s communities have already been studied, and I’ve mostly read that work with appreciation and not tried to recreate it. I haven’t looked much deeper into the African American church in Springfield, for example, because there are several projects that already cover that community in more depth than I can from a couple hundred miles away. And I haven’t dug directly into the League of Gileadites, the vigilance committee that Springfield African Americans formed after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. But the pieces that I’ve been researching are closely tied to these groups and exploring Ruth’s life certainly gives insights on them.
In looking at the overall black community in Springfield, many of whose members pop up on just one census and then disappear into the mists, I’ve become ever more impressed by the number of communities that the Adams family touched. (Not to mention grateful for the traces they left!) Their lives and the lives of their friends and colleagues show the ingenuity and resilience of a refugee/fugitive community not just fighting for physical safety and economic security but also making conscious choices about how to prosper and help future generations do the same. The strategies they used and the factors they weighed in their decisions show that they weren’t just running from oppression, but constantly working towards a better tomorrow.
Who, then, is Ruth?
There are a number of excellent articles about her story, but it seems amiss to start without a quick summary here. Ruth Cox was born in 1818 in Talbot County, MD, part of the plantation-dominated Eastern Shore, the daughter of Ebby Cox, an enslaved woman and a free black man whose name is lost. Her family’s oral history connected her to the household of a Fitzhugh Lee, but Leigh Fought’s research suggests that Representative and Senator John Leeds Kerr is a more likely match. When Kerr passed away in 1844, he left instructions for his estate to be sold and the proceeds to be used to pay off his debts. Faced with being sold to the Deep South, Ruth escaped north.
In West Chester, PA, she met Frederick Douglass, who took her for his sister, and she moved to live with him and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, in Lynn, MA. In the process, she assumed the name of Frederick’s mother, Harriet Bailey, to help mislead slavecatchers. There, she was friend and sister to Frederick and Anna, helped shoulder the work of their growing and active family and was active in abolitionist work in the area. And Ruth, who could read and write, was clearly invaluable to the Douglasses as a trusted link between them during Frederick’s long absences, including the extended tour of the United Kingdom necessitated by his tell-all 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which countered claims that he was a fraud by publishing details of where and by whom he had been held in bondage. In fact, she effectively ended this tour and, in doing so, initiated the process of his manumission, by informing him (to his palpable shock) the she was getting married and it was time for him to find a way to come home.
In 1847, Ruth married Perry Francis Adams, also from Talbot County, MD, and the couple soon moved to Springfield, MA, a long-established town struggling with the transition to becoming a city – a transition that, I believe, afforded them several unusual opportunities. There, they had three children – Matilda Ann (1849), Ebby (1852-1858) and Perry Francis, Jr. (1854), usually known as Frank. Although Perry held a number of jobs, his primary work was at James B. Rumrill’s gold chain factory. (Which? Insert every metaphor ever. Right here.) And they were very active members of the black community, which, like the larger city, can be characterized by contradictions – fast-growing yet somewhat transient yet by necessity tight-knit. Perry became a deacon of the Sanford Street Church, a leading member of the vigilance group that is likely the precursor to the League of Gileadites, and – to my absolute fascination –a Springfield tythingman in 1855 and 1856. In other words, the family was deeply integrated into multiple parts of the city… and probably felt that this was a desperate necessity – Ruth’s status as a fugitive slave meant that both she and their children were under the constant threat of recapture, a threat that intensified after the 1850 passage of the newly strengthened Fugitive Slave Act.
In 1861, after more than a decade of this strategy of intense, proactive integration, the family changed tactics and moved to Haiti, part of a group led by Rev. James T. Holly and sponsored by the Haitian Bureau of Emigration. The colony had more hardship than success and by the time the MA census taker came around in 1865, the Adams family was back in Springfield, and Perry was once again working as a jeweler. But Perry passed away in 1868, weakened by the typhoid fever he’d had in Haiti.
Around this time, Ruth got back in touch with her mother, Ebby Cox (now Ebby Bruce), who had been sold down to New Orleans. In one of her letters, in which she sends her condolences at Perry’s passing, Ebby invites Ruth to come live with her in New Orleans. But Ruth, Matilda, and Frank continued to live in Springfield for several years, Matilda working as a jeweler and Frank as a painter. And when the family did move, around 1872, they went to Providence, RI.
This moment was one of the first that really drew me into Ruth’s story – a huge choice that she made as the head of her family, possibly the biggest she’d made since her 1844 decision to flee slavery. While on the one hand it’s easy to imagine a freedperson quickly dismissing the idea of moving into the Deep South, even at the height of Reconstruction, it’s quite difficult to imagine that the woman who was once a child separated from her mother at a young age didn’t at least ponder the invitation and imagine what that reunion might be like.
Still, no matter how much she might have imagined it, the family moved to Providence, where, Matilda met and married William Vanderzee, a carpenter, and Ruth moved into their household. (The historical record loses track of son Frank in Providence.) In 1884, when William’s failing eyesight imperiled his work, the family moved to Nebraska to try their luck homesteading. (William had lived in Iowa when he was younger and the family’s move may have been based on recollections and connections he had from then.) They stopped in Omaha briefly, staying at the Lewis Hotel, before moving on to a farm on the Elkhorn River in Holt County, and then Norfolk. At some point in these travels, William converted from the AME Church to the Church of Christ and began studying for the ministry. By 1895, the family had settled in Lincoln, where William became pastor of the Christian Mission Church.
Ruth had lost touch with Frederick Douglass many years earlier (she last saw him, by her reckoning, around 1878), but in 1893 he went to Omaha to see if he could find her. He missed her, of course, since the whole family had moved away five years earlier, but when William Vanderzee spoke to reporters in response to Frederick’s visit, Ruth chimed in that she had known him many years ago. As near as I can reconstruct the timeline, this moment led to her giving a public lecture on her extraordinary life, which the Norfolk Weekly News reported on. That article reached Frederick and he wrote and reopened their correspondence. They exchanged letters until his death in 1895.
Ruth passed away in 1900, and is buried in Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln, NE.