As an intellectually curious child in tow with his grandmother travelling colonial dirt roads of the Tuckahoe the attention of Frederick Bailey was attuned to the history, customs and culture of his community.
Raised in his grandparents cabin, Isaac Bailey served as the first male father figure for a young Frederick. Throughout his life and across his public career, Douglass acknowledged and recognized the contributions of his elder forefathers.
Accustomed and acclimated to the company of Black American Patriots of the Revolutionary War and the Black Defenders of Baltimore, Frederick (Bailey) Douglass stepped forged and formed onto the national and international stage precipitously and deliberately influenced by men whose stories of sacrifices and contributions to the founding of this country history have mostly been forgotten today.
Frederick (Bailey) Douglass made sure America never forgot the contributions of these Black American Patriots while he had a say about it.
In February 1871, under the editorial guidance of Douglass, the New National Era ran an obituary for Henry Van Meter, “a Black Hero of the Revolution.”
A minor celebrity in his own time, due features in Harper’s Weekly and Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, Henry Van Meter was reportedly 110 years old or thereabouts when he passed in Bangor, Maine following the Civil War.
In a footnote to Lossing’s brief feature on Van Meter, there is this interesting note:
Henry remembered seeing Washington many times.
He was discontented, and wished to leave, notwithstanding his master was kind. He wished Henry to marry one of his slave girls, and raise children for him, offering, if he would do so, to order in his will that he should be made a free man at his death. “I didn’t like the gals,” said Henry, “and didn’t want to ‘wait for dead men’s shoes.’
So master sold me to a man near Lexington, in Kentucky, and there was only one log house in that town when I went there.” He was soon sold to one of those vile men engaged in the slave-trading business, who treated him shamefully. Henry mounted one of his master’s horses one night, and fled to the Kentucky River, where he turned him loose, and told him to go home if he had a mind to, as he didn’t wish to steal him. Some benevolent white people helped him on to the Ohio, and at Cincinnati, then a collection of houses around Fort Washington, he took the name of Van Meter, borne by some of the family of his kind master of the Shenandoah Valley.
Henry became a servant of an officer in St. Clair’s army, and served in the company, in the Northwest, with that commander and General Wayne. After the peace in 1795, he was living in Chillicothe, and came East with some Englishmen with horses, by way of Wheeling, to Philadelphia.
In the latter city some Quakers sent him to school, and he learned to read and write. When the war broke out he shipped as a common sailor in the privateer Lawrence, having previously been to Europe several times in the same capacity, and when cast into Dartmoor he held a prize ticket which was worth, when he got home, one thousand dollars. He let a captain have it as security for sixteen dollars. The man died of yellow fever in the South, and Henry never recovered his ticket.
Prior to the Civil War, Maine was an active state for the anti-slavery movement, as well as other reform efforts. Some notable citizens of Maine whom Douglass knew and/or worked closely with include, but not limited to, General Oliver Otis Howard, Secretary of State James G. Blaine and the politically influential Fessenden family.
While in bereavement over the death of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick spent time in the summer of 1883 in the resort community of Poland Spring, Maine. (You’ve likely had a bottle of water bearing its namesake.)
The decision of Douglass to run an obituary for Henry Van Meter is a deliberate recognition of the tradition and history of Black American Patriots who served and saved this country throughout its founding decades.