Archive for July, 2012
Message to Frederick Douglass biographers, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” [Dr. Leigh Fought]
The raw streets of Baltimore, Maryland gave the world Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, Tupac Shakur in the 20th century, and the HBO television show “The Wire” in the 21st. Without a doubt were Frederick Douglass alive today (his 19th century self of course) you know he would have thoughts and opinions ready to share on how “The Wire” has somehow integrated itself as equally into today’s street culture (of which it sought to diagnose) and into our common learned culture and popular zeitgeist culture.
To be clear, at 16th & W Street SE a reference to “The Wire” will be as recognizable in the pristine and gated classrooms of the Ivory Towers. Just how is it that former crime reporter David Simon (and his supporting team) could create a show whose cultural impact resonates and cuts across these disparate segments of society? Sounds like an oration Douglass could go wild with.
That said, forgotten in the common memory and mythology of Frederick Douglass is how he came up. Frederick Douglass was as much from the streets of Baltimore as he was from the fields of Talbot County. These Maryland experiences — in the city and the country — was where Douglass drew the intellectual gunpowder he would use to ignite the thinking minds of crowds, his family, close friends, and enemies for parts of seven decades.
This weekend Dr. Leigh Fought gave a thoughtful and well-researched presentation on Anna Douglass, Frederick Douglass’ wife of 44 years.
In the Q&A session chatter shifted to Love Across Color Lines in which the author is heavy-handed in her speculation that Douglass had an affair that lasted nearly three decades. Dr. Fought and I have both found serious flaws with the citations and the author’s imaginative interpretation of sources.
Speaking of Deidrich’s laudable but faulted effort, as well as future biographers of Douglass, Dr. Fought invoked one of the more notable lines from “The Wire” and the show’s infamous stick-up man, Omar (played by Michael K. Williams who was in “Bullet” alongside Tupac).
“Has everyone seen “The Wire”? You know that line, ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.” Indeed.
HON. FREDERICK DOUGLASS
My connection with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church began in 1838. This was soon after my escape from slavery and my arrival in New Bedford. Before leaving Maryland I was a member of the Methodist Church in Dallas Street, Baltimore, and should have joined a branch of that Church in New Bedford, Mass., had I not discovered the spirit of prejudice and the unholy connection of that Church with slavery. Hence I joined a little branch of Zion, of which Rev. William Serrington was the minister. I found him a man of deep piety, and of high intelligence. His character attracted me, and I received from him much excellent advice and brotherly sympathy. When he was removed to another station Bishop Rush sent us a very different man, in the person of Rev. Peter Ross, a man of high character, but of very little education. After him came Rev. Thomas James. I was deeply interested not only in these ministers, but also in Revs. Jehill Beman, Dempsy Kennedy, John P. Thompson, and Leven Smith, all of whom visited and preached in the little schoolhouse on Second Street, New Bedford, while I resided there. My acquaintance with Bishop Rush was also formed while I was in New Bedford.
It is impossible for me to tell how far my connection with these devoted men influenced my career. As early as 1839 I obtained a license from the Quarterly Conference as a local preacher, and often occupied the pulpit by request of the preacher in charge. No doubt that the exercise of my gifts in this vocation, and my association with the excellent men to whom I have referred, helped to prepare me for the wider sphere of usefulness which I have since occupied. It was from this Zion church that I went forth to the work of delivering my brethren from bondage, and this new vocation, which separated me from New Bedford and finally so enlarged my views of duty, separated me also from the calling of a local preacher. My connection with the little church continued long after I was in the antislavery field. I look back to the days I spent in little Zion, New Bedford, in the several capacities of sexton, steward, class leader, clerk, and local preacher, as among the happiest days of my life.
One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; or, The Centennial of African Methodism, by James Walker Hood, 1895 (Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill)
Scholars and independent researchers of Frederick Douglass have all most likely come across a reference or two in their reading of the Uniontown Shakespeare Club, in which Douglass independently participated at least twice. During his second reading with the group, in late 1877 Douglass performed the role of “Shylock” in The Merchant of Venice.
In an unfinished letter dated December 21, 1877 to “My dear Friend” Douglass writes, “I spoke to a very [illegible] and elegant audience at Mt. Pleasant Wednesday night, and read with the Uniontown Shakespeare Club last night.
The play was the Merchant of Venice and my part [was] Shylock. This is my second meeting with the Club. I find it very pleasant and entertaining and I have no one at my home to go with me and I often fancy that I am losing one half of the happiness of such occasions because in all such matters I am alone.”
For anyone who has taken a tour of Cedar Hill and paid close attention they have most likely seen (or heard a Ranger point it out) the large print of Othello and Desdemona, from Shakspeare’s Othello, prominently displayed just above the mantle in the living room.
Tireless advocate of the cause and public intellectual C.R. Gibbs knows from personal experience Douglass’ love of Shakespeare. Decades ago Gibbs had the unique pleasure of reading from Douglass’ personal Shakespeare collection.
[ED Note: In speaking with friends in Anacostia I have mentioned this club and Douglass’ involvement with it. The near uniform response is, “We need to start the club up again!” Huh, man.]
“The fact that our paper dares to take its place among the many lights existing to guide, and the many shields uplifted to defend the colored race in their transition from bondage to freedom, requires neither defence nor apology.”
Frederick Douglass, “Salutatory of the Corresponding Editor.” January 27, 1870, The New Era
Talk on Anna Murray Douglass this Saturday, July 21st, 2pm at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Come out this Saturday, July 21st for a lively talk and Q & A session on Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna Murray by Dr. Leigh Fought at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at 1411 W Street SE (Metro – Anacostia on the Green Line / Bus – B2, U2, 90s) from 2pm – 3pm. Dr. Fought is currently writing a book on Frederick Douglass and women, to be published by Oxford University Press in late 2013.
Beginning this fall, Dr. Fought will be a professor at Le Moyne College. Previously, she spent four years at Montgomery College in Takoma Park and served an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence (Yale University Press, 2009). Her publications include “Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa S. McCord” (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and “Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town” (History Press, 2007).
You can check out her current project on her blog, “Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress” at www.leighfought.blogspot.com
The last public appearance Frederick Douglass never made [Evening Star, Feb. 20, 1895 “Suburban News”]
The night Frederick Douglass passed away he was scheduled to speak at a nearby church. An item in The Evening Star’s “Suburban News“ for Anacostia made note of the last public appearance Douglass never made.
“The members and friends of Campbell A.M.E. Church, Hillsdale, are celebrating the twenty-seventh anniversary of the organization of the church with appropriate services. The church is handsomely decorated. A special program has been arranged for this week. Tonight Rev. Dr. Collett, presiding elder of the Potomac district, will read a paper, and a short address will be made by Fred. Douglass. A reception will be tendered to ministers.”
According to Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail, Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church at 2562 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, was established in 1867 as Mount Zion A.M.E. Its founding was due to the overcrowding of Allen Chapel A.M.E., which today is on Alabama Avenue, formerly Hamilton Road. Campbell A.M.E moved to “a location near its present one” in 1890, according to the trail marker. From my own inspection, to the right rear of the current church there is a cornerstone which is dated from well past Douglass’ time.
In October of 1890 a ceremony of installation was held for William H. Liverpool and Miss Fannie Johnson who were inaugurated as superintendent and assistant superintendent, respectively, at the Campbell A.M.E. Sunday-school. Notable locals in attendance were folk from nearby churches, Solomon G. Brown, and Frederick Douglass, home for the moment from his duties in Haiti.
Letterhead of “The New National Era” – Frederick Douglass, Editor & Douglass Brothers, Publishers [Lewis & Frederick, Jr.]
The election of the first generation of black Congressmen and Senators was distinctly chronicled by The New National Era. By the close of the paper’s freshmen year Republican Joseph Rainey became the first black member of the House of Representatives. He was sworn-in December 12, 1870 after being selected by the South Carolina Republican Party to fill the vacated seat of Benjamin Whitenmore who was forced to resign after being charged with selling appointments to U.S. military academies. Rainey would be elected for four successive terms before losing re-election to the 46th Congress in 1878. He retired March 3, 1879, becoming the longest serving black American Congressman during the Reconstruction period.
“Mr. Rainey’s early education was extremely limited, never having attended a school in his life,” introduced the New National Era, “but despite the disadvantages under which the colored people labored at that time, his thirst for education was so great that he took every opportunity that presented itself to acquire a knowledge of books, and, being naturally of an observing turn of mind, improved rapidly.” Rainey “took his seat on the Republican side in the extreme southwest corner of the hall.” He was described as having “straight hair and bushy side whiskers, and looks like a Cuban.” For the record, The New National Era stated, the “colored race is now represented in the United States Senate by Hiram Revels, in the lower House of Congress by Mr. Rainey, and on the Judicial bench by Mr. J. J. Wright, Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of South Carolina.”
It was noted in the same issue that the “colored population of the United States now numbers about five million” which equaled “about nine hundred thousand votes, and probably a million in the next Presidential election.” The previous Census had accounted for forty-two million persons which “will give the country another apportionment for members of the House.” Crunching the numbers, The New National Era determined on “a basis of 150,000 inhabitants to a Representative the House to be chosen two years hence would consist of 250 members. Of these the colored population would furnish the basis for thirty-four members.” In all the Reconstruction Congresses and those leading up to 1901 a total of twenty-one African Americans served as Congressmen.
“The First Colored Representative.” New National Era. 22 Dec. 1870, p. 3.
Frederick Douglass, J. Sella Martin, John Mercer Langston attend parade in Baltimore celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment [The New Era, May 26, 1870]
“Not less than ten thousand colored people were in the march, and ten thousand more lined the sidewalks” at the scene of a grand parade in Baltimore on May 19, 1870 celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave male citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It had been ratified and enacted that spring. Included in the cavalcade was Anacostia Club No. 1, an advance guard of eight men with muskets leading fifty men clad in Indian costume in front of a wagon of twenty women “dressed in the costume of Indian squaws, and several of them carried in their arms infants.” The organization carried a banner proclaiming “We are the True Supporters of the Republican Party. Anacostia Club organized March 26, 1870.”
At the front of the procession were the carriages of Frederick Douglass, John Sella Martin, and John M. Langston, of Howard University, “Every class and condition was represented – old men worn out by the toll of many years of servitude; young men whose early manhood was saved from degradation by the effects of Freedom; and a great army of boys and girls, in whose lives the auction-block will not be a hideous reminiscence,” wrote The New Era.
The band played its last introductory note, the master of ceremonies spoke quickly, and Frederick Douglass was before a crowd of Baltimoreans that knew Douglass as a son of Maryland. “During the last thirty years I have often appeared before the people as a slave, sometimes as a fugitive slave, but always in behalf of the slave. But today I am permitted to appear before you as an American citizen.” Douglass took his audience back for a moment, “When toiling on the plantation we slaves desired to talk of emancipation, but there stood the overseer, and a word could ensure a flogging.” Recalling a dexterity now known as code-switching, Douglass further told his attentive listeners, “To talk about emancipation without being discovered we invented a vocabulary, and when the overseer thought we were talking of the most simple thing we were really speaking of emancipation, but in a way that was Greek to them.” Applause and laughter broke out. “The negro has now got the three belongings of American freedom. First, the cartridge box, for when he got the eagle on his button and the musket on his shoulder he was free. Next came the ballot box; some of its most earnest advocates now hardly saw it three years ago, but we’ll forgive them now. Next we want the jury-box,” demanded Douglass.
Speaking before a large crowd of his compatriots Douglass preached, “Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school and show that besides the cartridge box, the ballot box and jury box you have also the knowledge box.” Wishful and encouraging, he said, “Build on for those who come after you. I am no orator. The orators who are to come up in hereafter the colored race will throw me and Langston far into the back ground.” Telling the crowd to “get education and get money” at all costs in order to be independent, Douglass told them, “I found that God never began to hear my prayers for liberty until I began to run. Then you ought to have seen the dust rise behind me in answer to prayer.”
Frederick Douglass letter to editor of the Evening Star [May 1877] from “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass”
*Regarding the controversy of Douglass’ lecture on the “National Capital” in Baltimore in May 1877.*
Departing from custom, as “the tide of popular feeling was so violent,” Douglass publicly addressed the calls for his removal with an explanatory letter to the editor of the Washington Evening Star. The Marshal’s office had not suffered from Douglass’ two-day absence to attend an exhibition in Philadelphia as it had been left in the hands of his honest and capable Deputy, Marshal L.P. Williams. Secondly, Douglass saw the attacks on him as “both malicious and silly,” expressing, “I very much mistake if this great city can be thrown into a tempest of passion by any humorous reflections I may take the liberty to utter.”
Finally, Douglass said he knew how the game worked, citing that his speech “required more than an hour and a half,” but it had been condensed into a “half or three-quarters of a column.” He told the readers of the Evening Star that had “the reporters of that lecture been as careful to note what I said in praise of Washington” as “in disparagement of it, it would have been impossible to awaken any feeling against me in this community.”
As an old newspaper man Douglas knew it “is the easiest thing in the world, as all editors know, to pervert the meaning and give a one-sided impression of a whole speech by giving isolated passages from the speech itself, without any qualifying connections.”
During Douglass’ years in Washington there had been calls on the House floor to move the capital out West, which never materialized. By the time of Douglass’ Baltimore lecture, Washington had become embedded in the American consciousness and imagination. He closed his letter to the editor as he had closed his speech. “Let it stand where it does now stand – where the father of his country planted it, and where it has stood for more than half a century – no longer sandwiched between two slave states – no longer a contradiction to human progress – no longer the hotbed of slavery and the slave trade – no longer the home of the duelist, the gambler, and the assassin – no longer anchored to a dark and semibarbarous past, but a redeemed city, beautiful to the eye and attractive to the heart, a bond of perpetual union, an angel of peace on earth and good will to men, a common ground upon which America of all races and colors, all sections North and South, may meet and shake hands, not over a chasm of blood, but over a free, united, and progressive republic.”