Archive for June, 2012

Marshal Frederick Douglass accompanies “Queen of Staccato,” Madame Selika, to perform at the White House for President and First Lady Hayes [Wash Post, November 14, 1878]

In November 1878, Marshal Fred Douglas, a man of refinement, enjoyed an evening at the White House with President Hayes and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes. Although Douglass, while serving as Marshal, reportedly stepped down from the ceremonial role of introducing guests at formal functions he was in frequent social company with President Hayes from Howard University to the White House.

Here’s an account of that evening from the Washington Post

Madame Selika at the White House

Last evening by appointment, Madame Selika, the wonderful colored prima donna, called at the White House, accompanied by Marshal Douglass and a few friends, and was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Hayes. After a few moment’ conversation and rest, the madame sang “Staccato Polka,” from Meulder; “The Last Rose of Summer,” Ernani Involvami, Verdi; Ave Maria, Millard. Mr. Williams, baritone by request, sand “Far Away,” by Bliss. The several pieces showed to great advantage the remarkable power, sweetness and versatility of the madame’s voice and accomplishments, the Staccato Polka especially proving her worthy of her title as “Queen of Staccato.” Each piece was heartily applauded. The singers were afterwards warmly congratulated by Mr. and Mrs. Hayes.

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Farmers’ & Drovers’ Hotel, Harrison Street, Anacostia & Robert F. Martin [1877 Boyd’s City Directory, Washington, DC]

Before the Civil War a Farmers & Drovers Hotel was off Maryland Avenue. Later the Farmers & Drovers Hotel in Anacostia would come to be more widely known. For some years it was run by Robert F. Martin, who was appointed Postmaster in 1865 and served until 1881 when Henry A. Griswold, a banker, real estate investor, and eventual President of the Anacostia Street Railway company.   Among Uniontown’s prominent citizens at the time was their new neighbor Marshal Frederick Douglass who lived a couple blocks off Harrison Street.

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Matthew Parker sneak peak; collage of vintage & contemporary image of Frederick Douglass’ library at Cedar Hill

Courtesy of Matthew Parker, http://www.reinventing-reality.com

You might know local photographer Matthew Parker from the Downtown Holiday Market, Eastern Market, the just closed Artomatic, or from seeing him riding around town in his Art Trike. No matter where you’ve seen Parker before you’ll soon catch him contributing to Frederick Douglass’ Washington: The Lion Of Anacostia.

Here’s a sample photo of Parker’s that blends a historic and well-known image of Frederick Douglass in his library with a contemporary photo of one the Lion’s liars.

Much thanks and appreciation to the folks at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site for their continued help and support.

…remember that it’s been recently confirmed by historians Zoe Trodd and  Celeste-Marie Bernier that Douglass is the most photographed person of the 19th century!

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Did Frederick Douglass buy “The New Era” from colored newspaper boy? Front page of “The New Era” [Thursday, January 13, 1870]

For black newspaper boys holding their street corners throughout downtown Washington, on Thursday January 13, 1870 there was a new paper to hawk, a paper uniquely speaking to their emerging place in the country and city, “The New Era.”

We forget Frederick Douglass came up in the streets of 1830’s Baltimore; he was always for the youngster on the make. From students at Howard University invited into his home(s) in the city to adolescent runaways in Rochester that Anna and Frederick helped shuttle to Canada, Douglass was ALWAYS there for the youngsters. His attitude was not I got mine, so get yours. Douglass’ attitude and message was I got mine this way, you can get yours this same way or other ways, but you CAN get it if you work hard, work hard, and don’t stop working hard and while working hard you believe in yourself. And at least one person believes in you, I do.

Frederick Douglass could break it down, he’d been there before and never forgot.

Courtesy LOC

I’ve heard through the grapevine of an account of a black newspaper boy seeing Frederick Douglass one morning on Pennsylvania Avenue and running up to him to talk — and sell a paper! When I first heard this I thought Douglass surely would have cut an image on the Avenue. The story goes that Douglass not only spoke to the young man, asking him questions about who he was and what he wanted to be, but that he gave him a “large tip” in life advice and a couple extra dollars. With my research approaching the stop sign as I’m weaving the chapters together I probably won’t have time to pursue this but I have two solid leads on where this account might be — if it does exist. This is another post I will have to update when I either confirm or reject this account.

Intrigue and speculation often times leads nowhere but this account from what I know of Douglass rings true.

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READ: Streets of Washington’s John DeFerrari reviews “Snow-Storm in August” by Jefferson Morley; book talk at Politics & Prose Sat., July 14th @ 6pm

Our main man John DeFerrari over at Streets of Washington recently posted a nice review of Snow-Storm in August.

From SOW…

The book’s title derives from the so-called “Snow Riot” of August 1835, when a mob of angry young laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW operated by Beverly Snow, a free black. Compared to other great civil disturbances such as the race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 were almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city’s history.

It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton’s bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur’s mother, had also been asleep in the room, and she awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door. Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran to get help from neighbors who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave. “I’ll have my freedom,” Arther shouted. “I’ll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do.” These were dangerous words for a slave to utter in Washington City in the 1830s.

Make sure you catch the book talk at Politics & Prose on Saturday, July 14th at 6pm.

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Sign of the times… Frederick Douglass: Zombie Killer or Why Let Lincoln Have all the Fun?

Read this great post from Phenderson Djèlí Clark HERE

Excerpt…

The modern popular history of the Civil War and slavery is roughly this–slavery was bad, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, the end. This is a marked improvement from past depictions of slavery that dominated popular culture and much of academia well into the mid 20th century–where the Dunning School reasoned that slavery wasn’t really so bad, while films like Birth of a Nation bemoaned the freeing of slaves in the first place. Hollywood would tone down the crazed rape-prone brutes of DW Griffith’s depictions with dancing asexual Uncles like Billy “Bojangles” Robinson (consistently paired with child star Shirley Temple), and an endless array of sassy (but doting and loyal) Mammys in films likeGone With the Wind. The social upheavals of the Civil Rights Era would coincide with a dramatic shift in academia away from the Dunning School, towards a more humanizing study of slavery. And by the late 70s Alex Haley’s television miniseries Roots brought the brutalities of the peculiar institution directly into American living rooms. What has remained consistent however is the depiction of Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and that blacks–both free and slave–were pretty much passive recipients of America’s belated good will. No wonder that the writer of a 1977 TIME article on Roots could say, with quite a straight face, that while white America had enslaved African-Americans, they would do well to remember that it was whites who had also ended slavery. This condescending sentiment was spoofed perfectly on an episode of Family Guy where Stewie, on behalf of white America, tells a black visitor at Gettysburg–”you’re welcome.”

It’s a trope that has woven its way into modern media depictions that feature the American Civil War. In Ken Burn’s sprawling documentary on the conflict, slavery and slaves play a minor role amongst a story of grand white military leaders. Folklorist Shelby Foote is given seemingly endless screen time to wax charmingly of the heroic exploits of Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest–abetter of the racially motivated Fort Pillow Massacre and a postwar leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Even the much acclaimed 1989 movie Glory pulls a fast one in its dramatic recreation of the famed black 54th Union regiment of Massachusetts. For one, it tells the story near completely from the point of view of Robert Gould Shaw (played by actor Matthew Broderick)–using his private letters, and conveniently omitting personal conflicts with his own racism he mentioned in those letters. Most telling, the film’s main black characters are fictional runaway slaves played by actors Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Isiah Washington. But the men of the 54th Massachusetts weren’t initially made up runaway slaves (not in the majority); they were free blacks, who came from the North, Canada and as far as the West Indies, risking their lives to fight a war against slavery. They wrote letters of their own, telling their own stories. However, perhaps fearing their presence would diminish Shaw as leading hero, Glory instead gives us fictionalized black characters who can fit the role of thankful ex-slaves shaped into men by a noble-hearted white savior. Cue Stewie again–”you’re welcome.”

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“The Picture Presentation at Howard University” attended by President Hayes and Marshal Frederick Douglass [NY Times, February 1878]

Courtesy United States Senate

History has been rather unsympathetic to Rutherford B. Hayes. I get it and understand. But in research I’ve found, in President Hayes, a man emerging that is more layered, complex, and empathetic than history has portrayed. I am not a credentialed historian, but I have approached this effort as a historian as detective gathering evidence, as any journalist would do. Some of the information I’ve found on President Hayes shines new, and in some ways, contradictory light on our 19th President.

The below New York Times article, written by Sara Jane Lippincott under the nom de plume “Grace Greenwood,” describes an evening at Howard University where emotions were thick in the air. [ED Note: This 1,500 word excerpt is part of Greenwood’s larger “Views on Passing Events” column. The night was covered a week before by the New York Times with a much smaller article.]

The remarks of President Hayes and Marshal Douglass are quoted in places, but more directly paraphrased. Even so, the remarks of Marshal Douglass are stirring.

On Thursday last I accompanied a party of friends to Howard University, where we had some very interesting exercises. The ostensible occasion was the presentation to the college of a fine large engraving of Carpenter’s picture, but really it was a sort of memorial service for Abraham Lincoln – occurring as it did, a day or two after his birthday. The President and his amiable wife were present, with Marshal Douglass, Col. T. W. Higginson, the munificent Mrs. Thompson, that lady bountiful and beautiful and a few lesser lights of politics, literature, and patriotism. The speech of Frederick Douglass did not unbeseem his old reputation for eloquence, wit, and honest good sense. His talk to the students was paternal in spirit, and on the whole, cheery in tone, though unsparing in admonition and rebuke. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” and he did lay on right lustily. It was a plain talk, with all harshness and bitterness taken out of it by the genial humor so peculiar to that orator – and by the tact which caused him to use the pronoun “we” instead of “you.”

Col. Higginson told some wonderful stories of his war experiences in the South – of the solemn rejoicing of the negroes over the emancipation proclamation, which came to them like a new gospel, let down from the New Jerusalem. The freedmen of Georgia at that time would scarcely have echoed the doubts, the “buts,” and the “ifs” of Mr. Stephens as to the wisdom and beneficence of the act which metamorphosed them from chattels into men, and if hard after-experience has caused those poor, dispersed plantation laborers, those disbanded black volunteers to grow disheartened with their “free, unhoused condition,” and feel to hanker after the flesh-pots of Egypt, if they find that to “call no man master” is, after all, a costly luxury, that to sow ballots is to reap bullets, and that “the wages of politics is death,” up here the race is as strong in faith, if not in position, and as much enamored for freedom, if not of Republicanism, as ever. They still believe liberty is a good thing – they still sing, “We are rising,” and believe it, though the yeast of the Freedmen’s Bureau has given out. When I looked around on the African portion of the audience – representatives of every shade of that unfortunate people who have seemed to us born during an eclipse of Divine favor – when I noticed them, the students especially, listening eagerly and seriously to words both of sympathy and reproof – the darkest face touched with the mysterious light of thought and aspiration, and set with a brave resolve to struggle against the love of idleness and pleasure – the real “curse of Ham” – I felt that all the honest questioning in the mind of Mr. Stephens as to the wisdom and righteousness of Mr. Lincoln’s act, was abundantly answered.

If that act was a military necessity, considered in the councils of the President it was also a need of humanity, settled and decreed n the counsels of the Almighty. If the justice was compulsory, it was Divine coercion. The noble eloquence – the very appearance of an ex-slave on the same platform with the President of the United States, was a sufficient answer to the doubts of the ex-Confederate. I remember when Marshal Douglass was a young fugitive, in deadly fear of Marshals – when if he dared to show his face in Washington, or even in New-York or Boston, he was liable to be arrested and taken back to Maryland, “With gyves upon his wrists,”

“Grace Greenwood”

I remember when hapless, and perhaps overzealous, philanthropists were imprisoned in the horrible old jail in Judiciary-square for helping such “discontented, demoralized darkies” as he out of bondage. I remember when between the Capitol and Georgetown was a slave prison; I remember how once a young slave girl escaped from that prison and took to the long bridge, hoping, perhaps, to hide herself in the woods about Arlington, but, being chased and headed off, leaped from the bridge into the Potomac and found there presently Patrick Henry’s alternative for “liberty.” About the bravest thing which our President has done since appointing Mr. Douglass Marshal of the District, and standing by his man, and one of the best things he has ever done, was to make this visit to the “Black University,” just at the time when it was being assailed. The present head of the institution, Dr. Patton, a man of rare intellect and culture and noble character, deserved this mark of respect and confidence – as I believe do all colored Professors. The words the President addressed to the students were wise, timely, and generous. As I could not wholly accept the assertion of Mr. Stephens that “among the whole Southern people there is not one who would change the state of things, resubjugate the colored man, and put him in the same state he was in before the war,” I cannot believe with President Hayes that “no one will deny the wisdom, the righteousness, and the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s act of emancipation,” but I honor the man for saying so, if he believed so, and for saying it so strongly. Mr. Garrison, the rugged Luther of these latter days could not have more stoutly championed the act for which we are all made to feel that the august shade of Lincoln is on trial to-day.

If the President by this visit gave happiness and encouragement to hearts not overfilled as the best with the wine of gladness, the presence of the President’s wife was received as an absolute benediction, her face as a soft light in a shadowy place. It is a most womanly and gracious presence – radiating gentleness and courtesy – a face whose character is best expressed by the word “lovely.” It was touching to note how, as Mr. Douglass pictured with master-strokes sad scenes before the war, and Col. Higginson, pathetic scenes during the war, her large dark eyes, “Sweetest eyes were ever seen,” mirrored every phase of feeling and often filled with sympathetic tears. The President’s wife may be a little quant and old-fashioned, but she is good – (perhaps, simple goodness is about as quant and old-fashioned a thing as we can see nowadays) – and when a woman has all the cardinal virtues, the coiffure is of little account – when she was the “ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” her “price is above rubies,” and diamonds are at a discount.

The University people received most gratefully the gift of Mr. Carpenter, looking with tender, not fault-finding, eyes, on the sad face of their great deliverer, and on the faces of his great associates. Since the original painting has hung in its place in the Capitol, I have been to see it, and trying to forget what all others have said, have made up my own humble estimate. I think it has merits of which the common people are perhaps the best judges. It has an air of rigid and homely fidelity, in its inception and execution, and in the portraits of that remarkable group, in all details of the picture. The fact that it was painted under the eye of Lincoln and his counselors, that the real costumes however commonplace, the customary attitudes, however ungraceful, of the men, all the actual accessories of the scene, were faithfully copied and preserved, certainly gives to it an exceptional value. The portraits are unquestionable likeness – that of Lincoln as his saddest, wannest, and weariest perhaps, but good, very good, as Lincoln portraits go; that of Seward is better; that of Stanton best. I do not like the color of some of the faces, and for that reason prefer the engraving to the painting. Mr. Carpenter was an absolute devout of Abraham Lincoln, and painted this picture in a most loving and loyal sprit. I think all that can be seen in his work, and, perhaps, it is not the worst atmosphere a picture of the kind can have. I have noticed that the painting has been much more severely criticized now that it has come to us as a gift than it was some four years ago when it was exhibited here and we understood that Government was negotiating for its purchase. I may be wrong, but I attribute much of this ungracious and harsh criticism to the change of feeling toward our sometimes foes, and a greater change of feeling toward our sometimes allies – toward both people conquered and the people emancipated by the means of that important aggressive document in the hand of that central figure of that picture – a light weapon, lightly held, but of 40-thunderbolt power. 

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