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, they had Presidential-themed street names as the Union Land Association established in 1854 with the sale 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 its offices are listed 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.