Archive for February 8th, 2015
BY ROBERT H. TERRELL.
IT is a great pity that some Boswell was not at the elbow of Frederick Douglass all the days of his later life to jot down and to preserve to posterity his precious gems of speech. It is painful to think that some of his most delightful sayings, and pleasing bon mots have never appeared in print, and are irrecoverably lost. Mr. Douglass was an unrivaled talker and liked to talk among his friends. One hour with him at his home on Cedar Hill when he was in the vein of talk was worth a week’s reading of books.
In private conversation there was a sparkle in Mr. Douglass words, a flow in his sentiments, a grace in his manner as sweet as summer, a calm and cheerful philosophy that no pen can photograph, no language accurately illustrate. He could tell of his own trials and triumphs in the most modest way. I once heard him repeat a climax to one of his famous speeches delivered forty years ago. It was eloquent even in its repetition. On some patriotic occasion he had been invited to speak. Having declared to his audience that he was no part of that day or that event, he said: “There is no mountain so high, no valley so deep, no plain so extensive in all this broad land where I may stand and call these hands my own.” I quote from memory. And then there would be tears in his voice. He could relate an incident with so much pathos that there would be few dry eyes among his listeners. He used to tell how he had been invited to deliver an address in other days in our Western towns. Quite an audience assembled to hear him. When he had concluded his speech no man was found gracious enough to invite him to his home and offer him a bed and a supper. So he wandered away down the road all alone, at last into a deserted graveyard, and while standing there amidst the graves of the dead the thought came to him that “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son man hath not where to lay his head.” Said Martin Luther, “Sorrow has pressed many sweet songs out of me.” Injustice to an oppressed people and sorrow for their condition gave both music and strength to the utterances of Frederick Douglass.
Mr. Douglass believed in the colored people. He believed that in this country there is a great future for them and that they will ultimately justify every prophecy for good made with regard to them. He not only gave expression to his belief in their ability to become capable men of business if given a fair trial, but he emphasized that confidence by contributing his money liberally to help their industrial enterprises. Right here in the city of Washington he was the first President of the Industrial Building and Savings Company; a large stock holder in the Alpha Life Insurance Company, and one of the heaviest depositors in the Capital Savings Bank –all institutions controlled and managed by colored men. It is fresh in the memory of everyone how he attempted three years ago to establish what was called the Freedom Manufacturing Company. The object of this concern was to buy a part of the old estate in Maryland upon which Mr. Douglass had lived and suffered as a slave, and there to plant a great industrial school for colored boys and girls as well as build factories that would give employment to hundreds of colored men and women. The scheme failed utterly, because of the lack of support by the colored people. Its death carried with it many hundreds of Mr. Douglass’ dollars.
I saw Justice Harlan, of the United States Supreme Court, at Mr. Douglass funeral, paying his last respects to one who in life had been his friend. It was a memorable occasion when I last saw Judge Harlan and Frederick Douglas together. It was a scene that represented the most striking contrast between the periods of the history of our nation. The Honorable Justice was presiding officer of a meeting at which Mr. Douglass was the chief speaker. Only thirty-five years before a Justice of the same court had made his name notorious by rendering a decision that placed even Frederick Douglass outside of the pale of human association. Roger Brooke Taney, in his elaborate opinion in the famous Dred Scott case declared that a Negro had neither social nor civil rights, nor legal capacity. When Frederick Douglass and Justice Harlan met on the same platform, on the occasion referred to, each valuing the other for his worth as a man, here was a scene that represented a change in public sentiment that was more than revolutionary.
—The Monthly Review.