Archive for November, 2012

Karen Lyon reviews “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia” in November Hill Rag’s “The Literary Hill” column

The History Press

Frederick Douglass Brought to Life

By: Karen Lyon [November, Hill Rag]

When the statue of Frederick Douglass finally assumes its rightful place in the US Capitol, no one will be cheering louder than John Muller. Yet the author of “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia” was not always an expert on the famous abolitionist leader. Spurred by a friend’s questions during a visit to Cedar Hill, Douglass’s home in Anacostia, Muller taught himself “enough about Frederick Douglas for a lifetime. Yet around every corner,” he writes, “I came across a new connection he had, or a helping hand he extended.”

Focusing on Douglass’s years in Washington, from 1863 until his death in 1895, Muller draws on previously untapped sources, as well as anecdotes and quotes from Douglass himself, to first paint a vivid portrait of the former slave’s boyhood in Baltimore and his early political life in Washington, where he held a short-lived but influential Presidential appointment on the Territorial Government’s legislative council.

Douglass then went on to serve as editor of the “New National Era,” an African-American newspaper that was “one of the first organs of early civil rights,” as a US Marshall facing the challenges of post-Civil War DC, and as a Trustee of Howard University. In 1872, he bought a house on A Street NE, but five years later, “with an ever-present bundle of grandchildren at their Capitol Hill home and frequent guests passing through,” he sought more space, purchasing Cedar Hill across the Eastern Branch in Uniontown (now Anacostia).

Muller does not shy away from the controversies surrounding Douglass, including his marriage to a white woman, but he also includes reminiscences from his grandchildren, who describe an aging Douglass getting down on all fours “where he would play the role of the family horse.” These personal touches, as well as a rich trove of photographs, make this well-researched book a pleasure to read. As one reviewer notes, “Muller brings Douglass to life as few have done or even attempted.”

John Muller is a DC-based journalist, historian, playwright, and policy analyst, as well as co-founder of DreamCity Theatre Group.  The author will sign and discuss “Frederick Douglass in Washington” at the Hill Center on Fri., Nov. 30, from 7 to 9pm.

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Frederick Douglass coming to your local PBS station in “The Abolitionists” [Premiers January 8, 2013]

Although, Frederick Douglass was written out of Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” Douglass cannot be written out of history altogether.  Tonight Frederick Douglass will come alive in Part 1 of the American Experience’s “The Abolitionists.” The 3 part series will run throughout January.

WETA’s schedule here.

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“Lincoln” ignores historic self-agency of black Washingtonians

Spoiler Alert: In the pursuit of pre-ordained film awards and potential box office receipts, famed director Steven Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner have minimized and distorted, intentional or not, the historic self-agency of black Washingtonians in “Lincoln,” according to a recent New York Times Op-Ed.

Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern University, writes that for decades “historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation.”

The voices of radical Republicans, such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade, were in Lincoln’s ear advocating for the rights of black folks, as well as black folks themselves such as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne and Frederick Douglass.

In fact, Spielberg, who’s been working on this project for many years, originally wanted to concentrate on the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, which was dramatized at Ford’s Theatre last year.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Kushner came aboard ‘Lincoln’ after a few other screenwriters had tried and failed to deliver a script to Spielberg’s liking — one early take focused on Lincoln’s friendship with Frederick Douglass.”

But the script was flipped. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a confirmed plagiarist, and her 2006 book “Team of Rivals” (which has now been re-released as a “Film Tie-In Edition”) became the guiding historic source. Douglass, says Masur who saw a screening in Chicago, is now “nowhere to be seen or heard.”

What the movie is left with, is by all accounts, a captivating performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and strong supporting roles by Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Fields as Mary Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Hal Halbrook as Francis Preston Blair (the founder of Silver Spring), and others.

Leaders of Washington’s black community and intimates of the Lincoln White House, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade are portrayed but, as Masur notes, come across as though they’re fresh from “central casting.”

The film tells an incomplete story, Masur contends.

“The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.

Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.

In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.”

In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. I briefly touch on what Masur recognizes; when Washington swelled with “contrabands,” it was the black churches and their parishioners that took the lead in forming “Relief Associations.”

According to records of the Christian Recorder from November 1862 the Union Bethel Church (later Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church) announced, “Brethren and Sisters: We appeal to you for aid in behalf of our poor, destitute, and suffering people from the South, who have come amongst us destitute of all the comforts of life, and in the most abject poverty and want, from the hoary-headed old man and woman, to the infant at the breast.”

Washington’s black community, largely free persons of color, did not sit idle waiting for the omnipotent benevolence of President Lincoln; the paternalistic spirit of which is captured in the Emancipation Statue at Lincoln Park in Northeast.

There’s plenty of good scholarship on how Washington’s black community organized to advocate and prepare for emancipation. Unfortunately, Spielberg, Kushner, Goodwin, and others who ushered “Lincoln” to the box office seem to have been oblivious.


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Frederick Douglass: “What I Would Do If I Were President”

Library of Congress

More than a century before Barack Obama was elected the first black President of the United States of America, the most prominent black man of the 19th century jotted down his thoughts on the matter, “What I Would Do If I Were President.”

It seems a little absurd for one in my position to be asked, or to answer the question as to what I would do or not do if I were President of the United States, since no such contingency has even one chance in sixty-million to be realized. But if that chance should happen, it would probably be my experience and my misfortune to make as many blunders and give just cause for as much criticism as any one, who has ever occupied the Presidential chair. One thing how-ever I would do or try to do. I would employ every means supplied to the President by the constitution of the United States, to secure to every citizen of the United States, without regards to race, color, sex or religion, equal protection of the law. No citizen, however poor or despised, should be able to say at the close of my administration that he had suffered any injustice or had been in any way oppressed or injured by any act of mine while acting as President of the United States.

Frederick Douglass

Although Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) has shown no interest or intellectual rigor in truly honoring Frederick Douglass’s legacy of advocacy in Washington, D.C. that doesn’t mean you can’t. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress are easily accessible online which include thousands of correspondence, ephemera of daily life, and some of his best known and lesser known speeches.

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