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Colored Press Convention meets at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church w/ Frederick Douglass, William Calvin Chase, Ferdinand Barnett, T. Thomas Fortune, Richard T. Greener and others attend

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church at 1705 15th Street NW in Washington, D.C., circa 1899. The church was razed in the mid-20th Century. Library of Congress.

If we are to celebrate Frederick Douglass’ Bicentennial I advance that we recognize the full measure of his life. Yes, he is known as a runaway slave who rose to advise more than a half-dozen United States Presidents but let us not be so limited in our understanding of Douglass. Lest us not forgot the lesser-known Douglass, such as editor Douglass.

Ranger Nate Johnson at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site knows and has presented on Douglass as a journalist and an editor.

In our ongoing research on Douglass, we are continuously interested in his unsung and largely unknown role as Editor Emeritus of the Colored Press (today known as the Black Press).

One small item we found in a June 1882 edition of the National Republican lists Douglass in attendance of the second day of proceedings for the Colored Press Convention at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, near 15th and R Streets NW. This was Rev. Grimke’s home church.

Other journalists attending were T. Thomas Fortune, Benjamin T. Tanner (founder of the Christian Recorder), Ferdinand L. Barnett, William C. Chase of the Washington Bee, W. A. Pledger of Atlanta and Richard T. Greener, a past editor and contributor to the New National Era.

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Richard T. Greener’s “Young Men, To the Front!” [National Era, April 24, 1873]

Richard T. GreenerFrederick Douglass is known for running away from slavery. In his nearly 50 years as a free man Douglass ran with fugitive slaves, militant abolitionists, suffragists, journalists, authors, presidents, senators, freedmen and the next generation of civil rights leaders from Ida B. Wells to Mary Church Terrell to Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard University.

Douglass mentored Greener, a frequent guest at Douglass’s Capitol Hill home and later Cedar Hill. The two men knocked heads in public debates at Douglass Hall, formerly at the corner of Howard Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. Greener was an intellectual of the first order. In some of the earliest editions of the New Era (later re-named the New National Era) Greener’s byline is seen. Greener would later purchase an ownership stake in the New National Era when it merged with a smaller Washington weekly.

Recently Greener has been in the news. With his name in the news let us reprint one of his most well-known essays, “Young Men, to the Front!,” first published in the National Era.

Young Men, to the Front!

The adage which was once so common, if not so thoroughly axiomatic as to gain universal credence – “Old men for council and young men for war” – assumes additional notoriety to-day, when the old men are quarreling in the council chamber and the young men are kept outside the door. While the young men are willing to allow much to the school of experience; many of them are the followers of Locke, and believe in the doctrine of innate ideas. They believe, to continue the comparison, that experience and wisdom do not always spring from length of years, nor does ignorance appertain to youth as a necessity. They dare assert that, as there are those who would never be men, lived they to be as old as Methuselah, so there are some whose minds are as well filled, whose judgments are as mature at twenty-five and eight, and their energy as decisive as though they were in their tenth lustrum. Conscious of this fact, it is the absurdity of folly for the young colored men of the country to sit idly by and see the grandest opportunities slipping away, the best cases lost by default because of the lack of energy displayed by many of our so-called leaders who have been longer on the field. With some very few exceptions, honorable as they are rare, they have done well for their day and generation; but with regard to the needs and policy of the negroes of the present hour they are as innocent as babes. Men for the most part of excellent temper and good working capacity, they lack that which is the handmaid and often the indispensable auxiliary of knowledge and all effective work – judgement. Unconscious puppets often, they dance to unseen music, moved themselves by hidden wires.

The convention was the favorite resort of the leading negro of ten years ago. He convened and resolved, resolved and unconvened – read his own speeches, was delighted with his own frothy rhetoric, and really imagined himself a leading man. He talked eloquently then it must be granted, because he spoke of his wrongs; but when the war overturned the edifice of slavery “Othello’s occupation” was “gone,” indeed The number who have survived and held their own under the new order of things may be counted upon one hand. They survive through that grand old law so much combated but ever  true – the survival of the fittest. They alone give character and reputation to the Negro. They make for him a fame which begets respect where his wrongs only excited pity. The field is comparatively clear now some of the older hacks have fallen by the way or lie spavined at the roadside. The question is, Will the young men of color throughout the country resolve to begin now to take part in public affairs, asserting their claim wherever it is denied, maintaining it wherever contested, and show that they young may be safe in counsel as well as good for war?

There are some who arrogate to themselves wisdom because of their years, just as some equally absurd people think they are wise because they never went to a high school or an academy – men, Heaven save the mark! who pride themselves on having never slaked their thirst at the fount of knowledge. It is not our purpose to disparage age. We remember what Cicero has written, so delightfully, of its pleasures; what Cephalus and Socrates thought of it in the Republic. We look “toward sunset” with reverences and respect; but it its with a reverence that makes us conscious of our own duty. The young men are now studying, working some, alas! idling away their time who ought to be the active, earnest men in the next Presidential campaign; young men who are to control the destinies of their race. Many of them are of marked ability and decidedly energetic in character. Not so fluent, perhaps, as their fathers, they are more thoughtful. They are found throughout the country. We feel that, if  like Roderick Dhu, we should put the whistle to our lips and blow a stirring blast, they would spring up in every part of the country ready with voice, pen or muscle to do their share in any honorable work. In spirit we do this, as young men ourselves, willing to blow a blast which, would that the young men of the country would hear and heed! Young men, to the front! Young men, rouse yourselves! Take the opportunities; make them where they are denied! “Quit you like men; be strong.”

YOUNG MEN, TO THE FRONT! 

Source:

New National Era, Vol. 4, No. 16, 24 April, 1874, p. 2

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Johns Hopkins News-Letter, “Scholars explore personal life of Frederick Douglass” (March 7, 2019)

Scholars explore personal life of Frederick Douglass

By JERRY WU | March 7, 2019


John Muller, author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C., and Ida Jones, archivist at Morgan State University, presented new research on Frederick Douglass at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Thursday, Feb. 28. The research centered around Douglass’ experiences as a young man in Baltimore and sought to fill in narrative holes regarding his life.

Douglass is known for his work on abolitionism, social reform and literary works. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and later changed his last name to Douglass at the suggestion of a member of the Underground Railroad who had harbored him during his escape from slavery.

Community member Derrick Camper noted that these personal details add to Douglass’ story as a historical figure.

“We always get this one thing about him, just like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Camper said. “But there’s more to him than what you read and see on T.V. There’s a person behind him.”

Muller and Jones’ research focused on other aspects of Douglass’ personal life, particularly his formative years in Baltimore. In his presentation, Muller told a story about Douglass’ purchase of a book in Baltimore, an event that may have been a catalyst for his later activism.

“When Douglass is about 12 years old, he buys the book The Columbian OratorThe Columbian Orator was a collection of essays and a very popular schoolbook of its day. There is a dialogue between a master and a slave in The Columbian Orator. Douglass talks extensively of how this book resonated with him and how important it was to his personal history,” he said.

According to Muller, the purchase of this book would not have been possible without the help of a little-known figure named Nathaniel Knight. Briefly mentioned in Douglass’ 1892 autobiography, Knight was a bookseller and prominent community member in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. By selling to books to Douglass, Knight was taking a big risk.

“This guy was breaking the law. Big time breaking the law,” Muller said. “He was a radical bookseller. This is a very radical action… He was supplying the black community with literature and a lot of other things, which he should not have been doing because it was illegal.”

Muller and Jones consider Knight just one of the many forgotten figures in what they call “the lost history of Frederick Douglass.” Jones said that it is necessary to understand the more quotidian aspects of Douglass’ life through his research. According to the researchers, this process has not been easy.

“African-American history has largely been an oral tradition,” Jones said. “Documentary evidence is lacking.”

As a result, scholars have had to rely heavily on Douglass’ autobiographies to study his personal life, which, though insightful, do not provide an all-encompassing chronicle.

However, having pored through many historical documents in their research, Muller and Jones have uncovered new information that adds texture to Douglass’ story.

“I found something in a newspaper from 1917, in which Richard Greener (the first black graduate of Harvard College) recalled a story that Frederick Douglass had told him about why he wore his hair the way he did,” Muller said. “The reason, according to Douglass, was that as a young man, possibly in Baltimore, he saw a picture of Alexander Dumas, the Afro-Franco writer. Douglass was struck by Dumas’ presentation as very unapologetically African, and Douglass adopted that hairstyle for his entire life.”

Jones added that these details and interesting facts bring Douglass’ story to life.

“When you’re able to find the historical records on various people that Douglass interacted with and people who had an influence on Douglass’s life, you get a sense of dimension to Douglass where he’s not only this lofty elder statesman but also a regular person,” Jones said. “He was a teenager. He did run the streets with the Fell’s Point boys. He lived a life similar to our own. It makes him much more relatable.”

Muller clarified that making Douglass more relatable in no way tarnishes his legacy. On the contrary, Muller asserted that by moving past the mythologized version of Douglass, one could begin to examine the tangible impact he had on people of his day. Muller said that Douglass spoke to benefit churches, night schools, scholarship funds and orphanages. For Douglass, it was not only about making grand speeches and writing letters to President Abraham Lincoln but also doing little things to help people in his community.

Jones said that the mythologized version of Douglass remains deeply ingrained in people’s psyche. When asked about what she thought of his legacy, Jones acknowledged this.

“Douglass became a paragon of what’s possible as an African American,” she said. “But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Mythologized figures are essential to how we think of ourselves as Americans. Figures like Douglass inspire us to stand up for what we know is right, whether it be in the fight against racism, sexism, inequality or any other injustice.”

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Forklift Materials Help Bring The Spirit of the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial to the Anacostia Community (Guest Blog Post)

Hi Forklift Fans!

As we wrap up Black History Month, we want to share an amazing mural project that was recently completed as a part of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site’s celebration of Douglass’ birthday. Led by local journalist and historian, John Muller, the project sought to create a mural installation that involves the local community and brings the spirit of the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial to the streets he walked and neighborhood he called home.

John Muller, a local journalist and historian in Anacostia, originally reached out to Forklift in search of drop cloths, tarps, and scaffolding for the project he was leading to commemorate the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial and Anacostia Park Centennial. He was excited to instead find other materials, such as our “oops” paint and eco-friendly Amazon Paint  which were used to paint the base of the mural for the ground and rolling green surface of Cedar Hill.

John’s knowledge and involvement in the Anacostia community inspired to him lead this mural project, since the community had been discussing the need for a beautification project for some time. In addition to covering the community for nearly a decade through a variety of online and print media outlets, John is also very well informed on the topic of Frederick Douglass, having written a book about Douglass’ final years in Washington, D.C.

Working alongside John was Rebeka Ryvola; the artist and co-creator behind the mural. Rebeka is an illustrator, based out of Boulder, Colorado and Washington, D.C, who works with mixed media through which she enjoys “shifting perspective, lending voice, prompting discourse, and bringing beauty into the world.”  We asked her to explain a little more about how the mural evolved:

“Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ The mural concept was co-created with John, who thought it would be interesting to feature some other historical figures affiliated with Douglass in the mural, of whom he knew a great deal. When I started sketching, the scene that appeared was a garden party with abolitionist John Brown, journalist Grace Greenwood, Civil Rights leader Ida Wells, first African American Harvard grad Richard Greener, and Blanche Bruce, who was the first black senator to serve a full term. The space around these historical greats became filled in with children and animals from the community, some playing baseball, one serenading with a violin, an instrument that Douglass played. When I sent the concept to John for feedback he was elated to see it, explaining that it was a spot-on depiction of literary salons that Douglass used to host on the back lawn of his Cedar Hill house. Now this party is celebrating the lively community of Anacostia that resides just one block away from that very house.

Now these figures bring their revolutionary presence to the kids of the neighborhood, encouraging learning, curiosity, and exploration of their world and their ability to deconstruct any barriers, real or imagined, that prevent them from achieving their grandest dreams. -Artist Rebeka Ryvola

Rebeka (right) with Nettie Washington Douglass, an anti-trafficking activist and Frederick Douglass’ great granddaughter.

Before being commissioned for the mural, Rebeka focused on studying global environmental and social challenges – earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in Global Resource Systems and Master’s Degrees in Environmental Management from the University of British Columbia and Yale University. According to Rebeka, she has always been artistic, and although she didn’t initially know how to connect art to her studies, she eventually came to realize she could combine both of her strong interests – all thanks to her supportive classmates in grad school.

“Some incredibly brilliant, bold, out-of-the-boxes classmates and a creative academic environment finally proved to me that art could play an important and valuable in opening eyes, changing hearts and minds, and uniting individuals, across communities, nations, and the world. Once I started to bring art into my studies and then my post-grad jobs, I couldn’t stop. I’ve conducted art workshops in Lebanon with Syrian and Lebanese Youth, and in Texas with unaccompanied migrant minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. I’ve led creative programming and illustrated for organizations including the World Bank, the Red Cross, and the White House, as well as publications of all kinds. Murals are new for me, but with this project I’m quite hooked.” -Rebeka Ryvola

Rebeka was inspired to become involved with the mural project because of Frederick Douglass’ historical significance. She feels he “continues to inspire so many, irrespective of race, age, or background, to this day. And the location of the mural, Anacostia in DC’s southeast, grapples more visibly than most places with the challenges Douglass worked so hard to address.” For her, the mural was a great “opportunity to explore the history of Frederick Douglass while engaging with the Anacostia community,” a project “100% in line” with her values.

Forklift is honored to have played a part in such a meaningful project that impacted so many in our community. Not only did the mural bring the Anacostia community together, it also received lots of attention from local and national press – The Washington Informer, Philadelphia Daily Tribune, and ABC7, to name a few.

The project’s GoFundMe account is still active. Any funds donated will help cover the costs of the muralist’s design time and labor, in addition to the cost of materials. To donate or learn more about the mural, click here!

“Thank you to you and all of Community Forklift for your help. Rebeka has done an incredible job.” -John Muller

 

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Did Frederick Douglass wear his hair after Afro-Franco writer Alexandre Dumas?

In the February 1917 edition of Champion Magazine Richard Greener reflects on his memories of his friendship with Frederick Douglass, revealing that Douglass’ hair style was in tribute to famed writer Alexandre Dumas.

“[Douglass] spoke warmly of his travels abroad; of seeing the elder Dumas in France.
‘Did you ever see a good picture of him?” he asked. [FD]
‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘and I have read after him.’ [Richard Greener]
‘Good. Did you note how he wore his hair?” [FD]
‘Yes, sir, long and conspicuously.” [RG]
‘That is why I imitated him. He was not ashamed of ‘fleecy locks and dark complexion,’ was he? They did not ‘forfeit nature’s claim.'” [FD]

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Educator Mrs. Fanny Jackson Coppin, namesake of Coppin State University in Baltimore, ran with industrial education advocate Dr. Frederick Douglass

In celebration of Women’s History Month we will make an effort to post weekly about reformist-minded women Dr. Frederick Douglass agitated and ran with in the circles of temperance, suffrage, journalism, education and other activist causes and purposes.

The first woman we feature is educator Mrs. Fanny Jackson Coppin, remembered today by the university on the west side of North Avenue in Baltimore which bears her name.

Whereas another day awaits a detailed account of the working relationship and friendship between Douglass and Coppin, here we share a brief excerpt from Coppin’s 1913 book with a brief anecdote detailing Douglass’ belief in industrial education as a means of economic self-determination.

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In the year 1837, the Friends of Philadelphia had established a school for the education of colored youth in higher learning. To make a test whether or not the Negro was capable of acquiring any considerable degree of education. For it was one of the strongest arguments in the defense of slavery, that the Negro was an inferior creation; formed by the Almighty for just the work he was doing.

It is said that John C. Calhoun made the remark, that if there could be found a Negro that could conjugate a Greek verb, he would give up all his preconceived ideas of the inferiority of the Negro. Well, let’s try him, and see, said the fair-minded Quaker people. And for years this institution, known as the Institute for Colored Youth, was visited by interested persons from different parts of the United States and Europe.

Here I was given the delightful task of teaching my own people, and how delighted I was to see them mastering Caesar, Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Xenophon’s Anabasis. We also taught New Testament Greek. It was customary to have public examinations once a year, and when the teachers were thru examining their classes, any interested person in the audience was requested to take it up, and ask questions. At one of such examinations, when I asked a titled Englishman to take the class and examine it, he said: “They are more capable of examining me, their proficiency is simply wonderful.”

One visiting friend was so pleased with the work of the students in the difficult metres in Horace that he afterwards sent me, as a present, the Horace which he used in college. A learned Friend from Germantown, coming into a class in Greek, the first aorist, passive and middle, being so neatly and correctly written at one board, while I, at the same time, was hearing a class recite, exclaimed: “Fanny, I find thee driving a coach and six.” As it is much more difficult to drive a coach and six, than a coach and one, I took it as a compliment. But I was especially glad to know that the students were doing their work so well as to justify Quakers in their fair-minded opinion of them.

General O. O. Howard, who was brought in at one time by one of the managers to hear an examination in Virgil, remarked that Negroes in trigonometry and the classics might well share in the triumphs of their brothers on the battlefield.

When I came to the School, the Principal of the Institute was Ebenezer D. Bassett, who for fourteen years had charge of the work. He was a graduate of the State Normal School of Connecticut, and was a man of unusual natural and acquired ability, and an accurate and ripe scholar; and, withal, a man of great modesty of character. Many are the reminiscences he used to give of the visits of interested persons to the school: among these was a man who had written a book to prove that the Negro was not a man. And, having heard of the wonderful achievements of this Negro school, he determined to come and see for himself what was being accomplished. He brought a friend with him, better versed in algebra than himself, and asked Mr. Bassett to bring out his highest class. There was in the class at that time Jesse Glasgow, a very black boy. All he asked was a chance. Just as fast as they gave the problems, Jesse put them on the board with the greatest ease. This decided the fate of the book, then in manuscript form, which, so far as we know, was never published. Jesse Glasgow afterwards found his way to the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

In the year 1869, Mr. Bassett was appointed United States Minister to Hayti by President Grant; leaving the principalship of the Institute vacant. Now, Octavius V. Catto, a professor in the school, and myself, had an opportunity to keep the school up to the same degree of proficiency that it attained under its former Principal and to carry it forward as much as possible.

March 30 1876 _ FMJ to FD

Letter from Fanny Jackson to Frederick Douglass, 30 March 1876. Courtesy of LOC, Douglass Papers.

About this time we were visited by a delegation of school commissioners, seeking teachers for schools in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. These teachers were not required to know and teach the classics, but they were expected to come into an examination upon the English branches, and to have at their tongue’s end the solution of any abstruse problem in the three R’s which their examiners might be inclined to ask them. And now, it seemed best to give up the time spent in teaching Greek and devote it to the English studies.

As our young people were now about to find a ready field in teaching, it was thought well to introduce some text books on school management, and methods of teaching, and thoroughly prepare our students for normal work. At this time our faculty was increased by the addition of Richard T. Greener, a graduate of Harvard College, who took charge of the English Department, and Edward Bouchet, a graduate of Yale College, and also of the Sheffield Scientific School, who took charge of the scientific department. Both of these young men were admirably fitted for their work. And, with Octavius V. Catto in charge of the boys’ department, and myself in charge of the girls–in connection with the principalship of the school–we had a strong working force.

I now instituted a course in normal training, which at first consisted only of a review of English studies, with the theory of teaching, school management and methods. But the inadequacy of this course was so apparent that when it became necessary to reorganize the Preparatory Departments, it was decided to put this work into the hands of the normal students, who would thus have ample practice in teaching and governing under daily direction and correction. These students became so efficient in their work that they were sought for and engaged to teach long before they finished their course of study.

Richard Humphreys, the Friend–Quaker–who gave the first endowment with which to found the school, stipulated that it should not only teach higher literary studies, but that a Mechanical and Industrial Department, including Agriculture, should come within the scope of its work. The wisdom of this thoughtful and far-seeing founder has since been amply demonstrated.

At the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, the foreign exhibits of work done in trade schools opened the eyes of the directors of public education in America as to the great lack existing in our own system of education. If this deficiency was apparent as it related to the white youth of the country, it was far more so as it related to the colored.

In Philadelphia, the only place at the time where a colored boy could learn a trade, was in the House of Refuge, or the Penitentiary!

And now began an eager and intensely earnest crusade to supply this deficiency in the work of the Institute for Colored Youth.

The teachers of the Institute now vigorously applied their energies in collecting funds for the establishment of an Industrial Department, and in this work they had the encouragement of the managers of the school, who were as anxious as we that the greatly needed department should be established.

In instituting this department, a temporary organization was formed, with Mr. Theodore Starr as President, Miss Anna Hallowell as Treasurer, and myself as Field Agent.

Illustration

The Academic Department of the Institute had been so splendidly successful in proving that the Negro youth was equally capable as others in mastering a higher education, that no argument was necessary to establish its need, but the broad ground of education by which the masses must become self-supporting was, to me, a matter of painful anxiety.

Frederick Douglass once said, it was easier to get a colored boy into a lawyer’s office than into a blacksmith shop; and on account of the inflexibility of the Trades Unions, this condition of affairs still continues, making it necessary for us to have our own “blacksmith shop.”

The minds of our people had to be enlightened upon the necessity of industrial education.

SOURCE:

Jackson-Coppin, Fanny. Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints of Teaching. Philadelphia, PA. 1913.

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Frederick Douglass hosts Liberian officials in Uniontown [Evening Star, 25 June 1880]

In the late 19th century, while Frederick Douglass lived in Anacostia, scores of notable men and women came to Cedar Hill. In conversation Monday with Mr. Donet D. Graves, Esq. about his ancestor James Wormley, I learned of a dinner Douglass held hosting officials from Liberia.

For Douglassonian scholars this should be of some intrigue because Douglass was forceful in his denunciation of “colonization” efforts throughout his life. Without getting too much into the specific history of Liberia or “colonization” efforts both nationally and in the District, I only learned a couple years ago that there was such a concentration of black Marylanders in Liberia that there was a republic named “Maryland” in Liberia. Maps of Africa from the late 18th century – early 19th century regularly reflect this. Today there is a county in Liberia named Maryland.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Without further delay, here’s the brief news item.

MARSHALL DOUGLASS entertained at dinner at his residence, at Uniontown, yesterday afternoon. Dr. E. W. Blyden, minister of Liberia to England, and Hon. John H. Smythe, U.S. minister resident to Liberia, at which dinner were also present Senator Bruce, Prof. Greener, L. H. Douglass, Robert Parker, James Wormley, Fred. Douglass, jr., and Charles Douglass.

SOURCE:

Evening Star. 25 June 1880, p. 1 Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Thank you to Donet D. Graves, Esq., a gentleman and scholar, for this helpful lead.

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Incorporation Certificates filed for “The New National Era and Citizens Publishing Company” [New National Era, April 17, 1873]

Incorporation Certificates.

Messrs. Lewis H. Douglass, James Storum, and Richard T. Greener yesterday filed in the office of the Recorder of Deeds a certification of incorporation of “The New National Era and Citizen’s Publishing Company,” the capital stock of which is fixed at $20,000, with the following trustees: L. H. Douglass, R. W. Tompkins, George D. Johnson, R. T. Greener, John H. Cook, Charles R. Douglass, and Frederick Douglass, Jr. – Daily Morning Chronicle.

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