Archive for May, 2012
Around the corner from the White House is the Metropolitan African Methodist Church at 1518 M Street NW. Inside the historic church certain pews denote famous black Americans. No stranger to Metropolitan AME, it’s only fit and proper that on the inner aisle of the pews on the right side (looking towards the altar) there is a small unassuming plaque with simply, “FREDERICK DOUGLASS.”
Douglass was a regular lecturer at Metropolitan. His funeral services were held at Metropolitan.
One of the greatest writers of the late 19th century was Stephen Crane. One of the greatest Americans of the 19th century was Frederick Douglass. What do these men have in common? Both inspired and created “rows,” a loosely defined 19th century version of a clique, crew, set, gang, or MOB.
A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him. His infantile countenance was livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery of great, crimson oaths.
Some Rum Alley children now came forward. The party stood for a moment exchanging vainglorious remarks with Devil’s Row. A few stones were thrown at long distances, and words of challenge passed between small warriors. Then the Rum Alley contingent turned slowly in the direction of their home street. They began to give, each to each, distorted versions of the fight. Causes of retreat in particular cases were magnified. Blows dealt in the fight were enlarged to catapultian power, and stones thrown were alleged to have hurtled with infinite accuracy. Valor grew strong again, and the little boys began to swear with great spirit.
“Ah, we blokies kin lick deh hull damn Row,” said a child, swaggering.
What does this have to do with Douglass? From the March 20th, 1877 The Daily Critic…
“A Fred. Douglass Row.
This morning, about 10 o’clock, Archie Johnson and John Craig, both colored, were standing on the corner of Seventh and D streets northwest, discussing the political situation in general and the appointment of Fred Douglass as Marshal of the District in particular. Archie is a strong Douglass man, and Johnson believes that the present Marshal has no right to hold his position. Argument failing to convince, they took to blows, and had a lively time in pummeling each other about the head, until Officers Grant, of the Sixth precinct arrived and put in his argument, which was to take them to Police Court, where Judge Snell settled the dispute by fining them each $5 for affray.”
Over at “Streets of Washington” writer-researcher-historian John DeFerrari discusses a well-known example of racism, as experienced by Lewis Henry Douglass, in postbellum Washington, DC. With a detailed history of the Government Printing Office, DeFerrari gives mention to the Columbia Typographical Union’s 1869 refusal to admit Lewis Douglass, thus lowering his wages.
Douglass, a veteran of the Civil War who had stormed the beaches at the famed Second Battle of Fort Wagner, was no slouch as a typesetter, having apprenticed as a young lad with his brothers, Frederick, Jr. & Charles, in their father’s printing offices for The North Star, Douglass’ Weekly, and Douglass’ Monthly.
Receiving discriminatory treatment while working at the GPO, Lewis left soon thereafter to work with his younger bother, Frederick, Jr., and his father Frederick, on the The New Era, which first hit the streets of Washington on Thursday, January 13, 1870.
Lewis and Frederick, Jr. would form their own printing company, the Douglass Brothers.
FRED DOUGLASS SEES A COLORED GAME. _ The announcement that the Pythian of Philadelphia would play the Alert, of Washington, D.C. (both colored organizations) on the 16th inst., attracted quite a concourse of spectators to the grounds of the Athletic, Seventeen street and Columbia avenue, Philadelphia. The game progressed finely until the beginning of the fifth inning, when a heavy shower of rain set in, compelling the umpire, Mr. E. H. Hayhurt, of the Athletic, to call game. The score stood at the end of the fourth inning: Alter 21; Pythian, 16, The hitting and fielding of both clubs were very good. Mr. Frederick Douglass was present and viewed the game from the reporters’ stand. His son is a member of the Alert.
During his day, some people questioned how Frederick Douglass spent his hard-earned money. We’d have to say Douglass spent his money how he saw best fit, including donating a thousand dollars to Howard University in the late summer of 1874.
Frederick Douglass attends first Union Alumni Association of Howard University and toasts “self-made men”, [National Republican, Feb 27, 1886]
Frederick Douglass was a self-made man about town during his years in Washington. He was a frequent guest of the White House the through various Presidential administrations after the Civil War, he served as adviser to both black and progressive white Senators and Congress men, he often attended and lectured at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, helping to raise money. In between his multiple speaking engagements and travels around the country, Douglass served on the Board of Trustees of Hoard University for nearly a quarter century. On behalf of the University Douglass raised money though appeals to Congress and outreach to the same network of institutions and person that had supported him during his abolitionist efforts before the war.
Douglass’ service to Howard University has been woefully overlooked in the evaluation of his enduring legacy to the city. Through his advocacy and championing of the city’s public colored school system and his lasting contributions to Howard University, Douglass was a steadfast, relentless advocate of equal education efforts for black Washingtonians. His record of charity should no longer be minimized, discarded as an after thought. Douglass service should be explored as a source of pride to the early importances of the education of both freedmen and their children in Washington, DC.
In late February 1886 Howard University, then almost two decades since its charter, recognized its growing network of alumni with its first annual banquet. Douglass attended and was asked to speak. Often called to deliver the featured address, here he offered a toast.
Hon. Frederick Douglass was selected to respond to the toast “Self-made Men.”
“I am not opposed to personalities,” said Mr. Douglass, “even when they are employed in the form of delicate insinuation. I think I see something of this offense in the call upon me to respond in behalf of self-made men. If you mean to insinuate that I am not a gentlemen and a scholar, like others around this delightful board, I resent the calumny, and prove my title to be here by the card with “LL. D.” in large letters, affixed with my name. But Mr. President, I will not, where I am so well-known, attempt to pass myself off for what I am not. I plead guilty at once to the implied charges. Upon the whole, I am rather proud of it, and in this last remark, you will perhaps say that I betray my peculiar origin, for of all men in the world, self-made men are the product of the attainments. Henry Clapp once said on Horace Greeley that he was a self-made man and worshipped his maker. Properly speaking, there are no self-made men in the world. Sidney Smith once said, while speaking of repudiation, that he never saw an American that he did not feel like stripping him, giving his hat to one creditor, his cost to another, and his books to another. So I may say of all self-made men. They have all begged, borrowed,, or stolen. There never was a self-made man, however well made, who would not have been better made with the same exertion by the ordinary helps of schools and colleges. Nevertheless, self-made men are entitled to a large measure of credit. They rise often, not only without favoring circumstances, but in decisive defiance of all efforts to keep them down.
“Flung overboard on the broad ocean of life, without oars or life preservers, they bravely buffet the billows by their own sinewy arms, and swim in safety where other men, supplied with all the appliances which wealth and power can give, despair and go down. Such men as these, whether we find them at home or abroad, whether professors of plowmen, whether of Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African origin, are self-made men, and are entitled to some respect because of their manly origin. It is the glory of the United States that such men are abundant. America is the nursery of such men. The explanation of the abundances is found in two facts: First, the respectability of labor, and secondly, the fact we have no privileged classes. We throw every man upon his own resources. We care not who was his father, or who was his mother.”
We ask not for his lineage,
We ask not for his name;
It manliness be in his heart,
He noble birth may claim.
We ask not from what land he came,
Nor where his youth was nursed;
It pure the stream, it matters not
The spot from whence it burst
President William W. Patton then responded to the sentiment, “Howard University.” He congratulated the alumni on the interest they showed in their alma mater. He passed a tribute on the founder of the university. The college was founded on the broadest principles and educated every one without regards to sex or race. The university has done a grand work, and in nineteen years or existence 3,000 students have been admitted to the various departments, and there have sent forth 250 ministers of Christianity, about the same number of lawyers, and over 400 physicians. The university has now survived the dangers of infancy, the opposition of foes, the indifference of the prejudiced, and the reverses of financial disasters. Its property to-day free from debt and the 420 students are making progress. The university has a promising future. Public bodies and private benefactors feel safe in aiding a permanent and successful institution. Students in all parts of the country are learning of the advantages which the university offers, and at present thirty states are represented among them.
NOTE: At the time of the address there were thirty-eight states in the country, and Washington, DC as the Federal District, which had been sending students to the University since its earliest days.
To any Minister of the Gospel authorized to Celebrate Marriages in the District of Columbia, Greeting
You are hereby LICENSED to solemnize the RITES OF MARRIAGE between
Frederick Douglass, of Washington, DC AND Helen Pitts, of New York
if you find no lawful impediment thereto; and having so done you are commanded to appear in the Clerk’s Office of the Supreme Court of said District and certify the same.
Witness my hand and the seal of said Court this 24 day of January 1884
There were only four people present at the exchange of vows between Douglass and Pitts. Douglass’ children literally learned about the marriage through the papers. Pitts’ father, an abolitionist in Western New York who had invited a younger Douglass into his home, disowned his daughter for now marrying Douglass.
Thanks is in order to the DC Archives for generously providing this document.
Charles Douglass calls swearing-in of Senator H.R. Revels “one of the greatest days” in “the history of this country.” Tells his father “the door is open, and I expect yet to see you pass in”
The first black American seated as a member of the United States Senate was Hiram Rhodes Revels representing Mississippi. Revels filled the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who left to serve as the President of the Confederate States of America, truly the personification of Lord Byron’s famous line in the long-form poem, “Don Juan,” that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Indeed.
According to Black Americans in Congress, “Revels arrived in Washington at the end of January 1870, but could not present his credentials until Mississippi was readmitted to the United States on February 23. Senate Republicans sought to swear in Revels immediately afterwards, but Senate Democrats were determined to block the effort. Led by Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky and Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware, the Democrats claimed Revels’s election was null and void, arguing that Mississippi was under military rule and lacked a civil government to confirm his election. Others claimed Revels was not a U.S. citizen until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and was therefore ineligible to become a U.S. Senator. Senate Republicans rallied to his defense. Though Revels would not fill Davis’s seat, the symbolism of a black man’s admission to the Senate after the departure of the former President of the Confederacy was not lost on Radical Republicans. Nevada Senator James Nye underlined the significance of this event: “[Jefferson Davis] went out to establish a government whose cornerstone should be the oppression and perpetual enslavement of a race because their skin differed in color from his,” Nye declared. “Sir, what a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample under foot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat upon this floor.”
Up in the Senate Gallery that day, taking all of this in, was Charles R. Douglass. In a February 26th letter, to his “Father,” Frederick Douglass, Charles wrote,
Yesterday was one of the greatest days to me, in the history of this country. I was present and listened to the dying groans of the last of the Democracy, it was on the occasion of administering the oath to H.R. Revels as U.S. Senator. The Democrats fought hard, but were met on all sides with unanswerable arguments on behalf of justice and right. The fight was on the citizenship of colored men. Even that dead & odious “Dred Scott Decision” was lugged in by the Democrats to show that blacks were not citizens, but Senators Scott of Pennsylvania, Drake of Mo., Stewart of Nev., Nye of Nev., Sawyer of S.C., Trumbull & many others knocked that decision higher than a kite, by their strong and logical arguments. Senator Wilson appeared to be the happiest man in the whole body not even excepting Revels, who advanced to the desk and took the oath in a very dignified manner. I hope that he may bear up under the new responsibilities, but I fear he is weak.
Many voices in the Galleries were heard by me to say, ‘If it would only have been Fred Douglass,’ and my heart beat rapidly when I looked into that crowded Gallery, and upon the crowded floor, to notice the deep and great interest manifested all around, it looked solemn and the thought flashed from my mind that that honor, for the first time conferred upon a colored man, should have been conferred upon you and I am satisfied that many Senators would much more willingly see you come there than to see that Reverend gentlemen who has just taken his seat.
But the door is open, and I expect yet to see you pass in, not though, as a tool as I think this man is, to fill out an unexpired term of one year, earning from a state too that has a large majority – of colored votes; but from your native state to fill the chair for the long and fullest term of either Vickers or Hamilton – who only yesterday, made long wails and harangues against negro citizenship.”
Frederick Douglass never did run for a seat in the United States Senate, nor was he appointed.
To this day there have only been six black American members of the United States Senate, five elected. Only three have served full-terms. The six are Revels (R) Mississippi, Blanche Kelso Bruce (R) Mississippi [full-term], Washington, DC’s own Edward Brooke (R) Massachusetts [full-term, 2], Carol Mosley Braun (D) Illinois [full-term], Barack Obama (D) Illinois (vacated his seat when he won the 2008 Presidential race), Roland Burris (D) Illinois (filled seat vacated by Obama).
Don’t believe everything you read; the offices of “The New Era” were not in Uniontown, McFeely error “blasphemous”
I can say with metaphysical certitude that Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (for his 1982 work on U.S. Grant) William McFeely is well off-target when he writes in his 1991 book, Frederick Douglass, that “when the New Era, of which [Douglass] was a sponsor, began publication in January 1870, its offices were in Uniontown, a part of the District of Columbia across the Anacostia River; the number of black citizens in Washington was growing, and a good many of them were building houses there.” [Pg. 271, 4th paragraph, 1995 edition]
McFeely got the first part wrong, the second part right (which we will address in future posts). I have found no evidence to support McFeely’s claim that The New Era was published in Uniontown. All sources I’ve discovered contradict McFeely, whose careless reference is not cited.
Arguably the “official” or definitive source on where the offices of The New Era were when it began publication is the 1870 Boyd’s City Directory (the 19th century version of the 20th century Yellow Pages). The New Era, a weekly paper, is listed as being published at “406 11th st.” While there is no quadrant identifier – nw, sw, se, or ne – at this time, in Uniontown the streets did not have alpha-numeric names. Uniontown streets had Presidential-themed names, established in 1854 when the Union Land Association began sales of the suburb’s first lots. Furthermore, if The New Era was, indeed, printed in Uniontown the city directory would have noted that clearly.
All five years The New Era, which would change its name slightly in ensuing years, is listed in the City Directory with its offices noted on the 400 block of 11th Street. This location put the paper “[e]dited by colored men” in approximate proximity to “Newspaper Row” which is immortalized in a January 1874 Harper’s article, “Washington News,” by Benjamin Perley Poore.
While McFeely is an industry lauded historian, Leigh Fought (working on a book about Douglass) has also found room to quibble with McFeely over a minor, yet rather consequential detail in his book about the background of Helen Pitts, Douglass’ second wife.
The New Era is only mentioned four times in McFeely’s work of more than 385 pages. In those four references, one of which we have already noted, McFeely never offers to say when, why, or how this upstart paper would have moved its offices crosstown from Uniontown, the rural southside of the city, to the hub of journalistic activity, right off of Pennsylvania Avenue, “America’s Main Street.”
I find this error to not be minor; it is major.
It is egregious, sloppy, and as a journalist with respect for and a shared fraternity with the “black press” we find this error blasphemous to the legacy of Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC. A legacy which is yet understood, and yet appreciated. We owe ourselves, our city, and the memory of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th century the honor to do his memory justice.
Both Benjamin Quarles and Philip Foner’s works on Douglass treat “The New Era” critically, respectfully, and accurately based on scholarship. McFeely’s work can make no such claims.
I walk the streets, alleys, back-cuts, and lounge on the corners of Anacostia everyday, every hour, every minute. Tour an abandominium or two. Reports and the widely held perceptions of violence and criminality in Anacostia, as I see it and know it, are over-rated. But that perspective is relative. After some quiet, over in Barry Farm folks are getting slumped once again. Youngster are still bucking off shots late night in and around earshot of the 1400 block of W Street SE (formerly Jefferson Street), but this isn’t the late ’80s, 1995, or even the early 2000s (aughts).
Relatively speaking, if you’re not in “the game,” and/or wearing Foamposites, rocking a Helly Hansen coat, Anacostia is a small village where you can feel safe. But that’s the mindset of someone who knows the community and the history.
Murder and violence is nothing new to America, to our cities, or to the streets of Old Anacostia.
“Washington, June 17. – An inquest was held at the eighth precinct station this afternoon upon the body of Ernest Allen, who died this morning at Providence Hospital from a blow given last Tuesday night by John A. Owens, who keeps a grocery store at the village of Anacostia, on Nichols avenue. It appeared that a short time ago Owens was accused of violating the liquor license law, and Allen was a witness against him in the Police Court. This excited the anger of Owens, and when Allen was near Owen’s store last Tuesday a quarrel occurred, and Owens struck Allen in the head with a stone or a weight, and depressed his skull. He fell unconscious. Dr. Pyles, of Anacostia, paid him medical attention, and was then sent to Providence Hospital, where he lingered until this morning. The jury found in accordance with the facts.”