Archive for June 11th, 2012

Congressional Record: “Whenever [Frederick Douglass] got in sight of the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, he always felt as though he wanted to steal something.”

Frederick Douglass was no born fool, simpleton, sucker, or gump. He came up from slavery, he came up in the the streets of Jacksonian Baltimore. As has been better said by others before the “overly honorific public memory of Douglass belies a life entirely defined by action—sometimes action-hero type action. Frederick Douglass was a fighter.”

Now, don’t get it twisted or tangled. Douglass was a fighter but he was no criminal. At one time he may have been a fugitive slave, an outlaw, but he was honest, principled, and earned everything he had coming to him. With the exception of his flight from slavery, where Douglass stole himself from his master, Douglass scholars have found no quivering in his strict adherence to and advocacy for a society based on laws.

However his devoutness to the most basic American ideals and values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, Douglass was still from the streets and was funny with it when he wanted to be. Take the following example as evidence of a side of Douglass which has been touched on by scholars but does not permeate the public’s perception of him as stoic, stern, and stone-cold serious.

On February 20, 1878 United States Congressman from Wisconsin Charles G. Williams, who’d lived in Rochester during the years Douglass called the city home, revealed an insight into his relationship with his friend, the US Marshal for the District of Columbia.

“Reading of this infectious feeling in that office I was reminded of an ironical remark which I heard Mr. Frederick Douglass make some years ago. He said he could never account for it: but somehow, whenever he got in sight of the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, he always felt as though he wanted to steal something.” [Congressional Record, House, February 20, 1878 – 7 Cong. Rec. 1227 1878]

Was Douglass joking or dead-serious or dead-serious although joking?

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1886 bill from the tailor, Douglass buys new pants, relines his frock coat, and gets old pair of pants repaired and cleaned

Library of Congress

In spring 1886 Frederick Douglass was keeping it conservative. According to a receipt on the Library of Congress’ collection Douglass paid Louis Kettler $20 for a fresh pair of English pantaloons, relining one black cloth frock coat, and repairing, cleaning & pressing an older pair of pantaloons.

Ketter was a tailor at 1222 F Street NW, downtown.

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Washington Sentinel supports appointment of Fred Douglass as Marshal of the District, [Saturday, March 17, 1877]

Newspapering in Washington, D.C. in the 1870s was a make or break proposition. Sifting through the listings of papers in the Boyd’s City Directories for the decade between 1870 and 1880 there is a marked increase in the number of rags on the streets of Washington, D.C. but also a great fluctuation year to year with old papers dying and new ones emerging.

It was during the 1870s that The New National Era sprang to life and suffered a premature death. It was in 1877 that The Washington Post first appeared.

The range of city newspapers – dailies, weeklies, and monthlies — during this decade offer disparate editorials and reporting guided by the perspectives and ideologies  of varying political parties, social reform causes, and in the case of The Washington Sentinel an ethnic-based constituency; German-Americans.

Aligning with the Democrats in advocating for a “non-intervention policy in the South by the President”, The Sentinel supported Frederick Douglass’ appointment as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia proclaiming to those who marginalized Douglass, “Down with your aristocratic notions, and up with the colored brother, who has always been so dear to you!”

From The Washington Sentinel, March 17, 1877…

Marshal Fred. Douglass

The President has appointed Frederick Douglass, the well-known colored orator, and who stands at the head of his race in this country, Marshal of the District of Columbia. This position was lately occupied by Grant’s brother-in-law, Sharpe, and is considered the best in the District. Indeed, it is ranked immediately after that of a Cabinet officer, and for the last forty years the District Marshal has, at levees at the White House, been in the habit of exercising functions of a Grand Chamberlain, such as introducing visitors to the President, etc.

When it is considered that but for the colored people the Republican party would be nowhere, the appointment of Douglass must be regarded as a great stroke of policy. The intended non-intervention policy in the South by the President might have been considered by many – the New York Sun included – as inimical to the colored race. But Hayes certainly has by that appointment at one blow destroyed all such suppositions. He has out-done Grant entirely.

When Douglass returned as one of the St. Domingo Commissioners to Washington, Grant invited all the Commissioners to dinner — except him. For social equality has never as yet been accorded by the leading Radicals to the negroes, and to that fact Pinchback must ascribe to his non-conformation more than to anything else.

The National Republican says in regard to the appointment:

“The business men seem dissatisfied and the members of the bar are almost unanimously against it, and will send up a delegation before the Senate committee to show cause why Mr. Douglass should not be confirmed. * * * The claim that he is too theoretical. * * * Chief Justice Carrter remarked yesterday, “The Marshal of the District should be a man thoroughly practical and business-like.”

Well, was Mr. Sharpe, who during a whole year never was eight days present at the court-house, and entirely left matters to his deputy, more “practical and business like” than Douglass?

That will not do! Douglass is as good as any of you! And what becomes of your Civil Rights bill? Where is your love for the negro, without whose assistance none of you would be in office? Down with your aristocratic notions, and up with the colored brother, who has always been so dear to you!

The National Republican further says that “Mr. Douglass need to not necessarily be an adjunct for the receptions at the White House.”

Why, brother Murtagh? Is not Fred Douglass as good and respectable as you and your friends, Shepherd, Babcock, Belknap, etc Is that the language of a Republican organ?

Frederick Douglass was once a slave. So was the present Grand Vizier of Turkey, Edhem Pasha, whose biography we publish to-day in our foreign news column. The “former state of servitude” ought to have no weight with our Republican brethren!

In short we believe that President Hayes is sincere in “wiping out the color line, and the sooner the Radical aristocratic ladies and gentlemen acquiesce in that policy, the better will be for them. We hope that our Democratic Senators will not commit the blunder of voting against that appointment. If Mr. Hayes desires to put colored men into positions formerly occupied y Grant’s relatives and friend he will only have given another proof that he is earnestly in favor of civil service reform. Besides the President ought to have the privilege of selecting his own household – and the District Marshal almost belongs to it – independent of race, color and previous condition of servitude!”

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Girl Scouts rock the mall for their 100th anniversary & visit Frederick Douglass home in Anacostia

Ranger Jackson welcomes a Girl Scout Troop from Florida.

This past weekend tens of thousands of Girl Scouts and their troop leaders invaded the city from as far away as Florida, Texas, and California to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the organization. Young scouts in their green vests, loaded with buttons, badges, patches, pins, and decorations jammed the Metro. Estimated attendance reached as high as 100,000.

Hotels across the city and in nearby Maryland and Virginia booked. In Anacostia there are no hotels; in Douglass’ time there was.

Following a tradition more than a century strong, many of the Girl Scouts managed to find their way from the celebration downtown over to the Anacostia neighborhood to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site on W Street SE.

Over the years photographs have amassed in many private and public collections that chronicle the gatherings of local student clubs, church congregations, organized trade alliances, suffragists, civil rights associations, fraternal and journalist societies, to name a few, posing in front of the home and on the lawn. Through the photos of these various coalitions you can roughly piece together the growth and development of Civil Rights and Women’s Rights, as well as social movements, and political causes.

The Girl Scout troops that visited the Douglass home this weekend are not the first nor will they be the last to come through Cedar Hill. This tradition of visiting this old house in old Anacostia is most important to our youngest and adolescent citizens. Later in life they will come back to the home, with their children in tow, keeping the heritage of Frederick Douglass alive.

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