Archive for May 21st, 2012

Don’t believe everything you read; the offices of “The New Era” were not in Uniontown, McFeely error “blasphemous”

1870 Boyd’s City Directory, Washington, DC

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.

“Newspaper Row” Jan. 1874, Harper’s

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.

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Violence on streets of Old Anacostia [“Washington Letter,” Baltimore Sun, 1886]

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.

From the Baltimore Sun‘s “Letter from Washington,” 1886,

“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.”

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