Posts Tagged Francis Grimke

Frederick Douglass addresses students at Washington City’s Charles Sumner School; including grand-daughter of Mount Vernon Mary E. Syphax and future husband of Mary Church Terrell (1874)

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New National Era

Following the American Civil War the movement to establish normal schools, colleges and universities of, for and by peoples of African descent in large part emanated from established private and public support networks out of Washington City from collective efforts of elected officials, Union generals, Northern philanthropists, reformist clergy and radical educators of African descent.

Within this distinctive culture and community of D.C.’s “aristocrats of color” was an inherited obligation and guiding responsibility to use their influence to reach back to uplift the children and grandchildren of the recently emancipated. 

Among Black American elite families leading the charge to establish and endow a transformative public colored school system in Washington City were the Syphaxes of Mount Vernon and Arlington House, as well the multi-generational Douglass family. 

The Douglass family, their patriarch Honorable Frederick (Bailey) Douglass along with his sons and daughters-in-laws, and the Syphax family, led by William Syphax (1825 – 1891) and Charles Syphax (1829 – 1885), worked together during the first generation of Washington City’s Public Colored Schools at all levels of support from attending examinations in school houses throughout the city to lobbying members of Congress for increased resources.

Following the American Civil War, Washington City’s Public Colored school system quickly became a shining “example for all the land” for the nation’s Freedman communities to emulate. 

Building from an existing school house infrastructure established before and during the War for students of African descent, Washington’s colored schools had a long-established tradition of preparing homegrown talent, such as the fiery William Calvin Chase, who would became leaders within local and national circles, as well preparing students to light out into the larger country to make a lasting impact within communities of African-descended peoples by establishing schools, businesses, banks, newspapers and other institutions vital to Black American life.

Benevolence, political support and social investment in the city’s schools was not wanting from the leading families of Washington City from the Bruces to Cooks to Langstons to Shadds to Douglasses to Syphaxes.

With leading Black American scholars and activists at the head of the classroom, DC’s Colored Schools independently produced prodigious talent. Many of the first Black American graduates of this country’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities were either graduates of DC’s Colored Schools, or instructors within DC’s Colored schools, or both.

The Douglass grandchildren attended schools throughout the city, matriculating, alongside their groundbreaking classmates, to earn the first diplomas conferred by America’s Ivy League universities to scholars descended from the families of American enslavement. (Haley George Douglass attended DC’s Colored Schools before graduating from Harvard in 1905 where upon he taught, and coached football, at the M Street School (Dunbar) for generations.) 

As their parents were respected within the communities of Old Anacostia, Barry Farm and Hillsdale as the founding teachers and administers of schools serving families from the Diaspora of American enslavement, the Douglass grandchildren were respected for their scholastic achievement in a competitive and meritorious classroom.  


A frequent presence at school ceremonies, in 1874 Frederick Douglass offered remarks at a public examination of the Sumner School. In a letter to the New National Era “STYLUS” reported: 

“The medals and diplomas were conferred on the scholars with appropriate remarks by Hon. Wm. Stickney, Pres. of the Council of the District of Columbia after which Hon. Frederick Douglass Sr. addressed the audience in a short and terse speech most congratulatory to the students.”

“Among the distinguished gentlemen present were Messrs Hon. Wm. Stickney, Z. Richards, Rev J. Sella Martin, Hon. Lewis Douglass, Editor of the “NEW NATIONAL ERA,” Hon. Frederick Douglass Sr., J. H. Brooks Esq., Geo. T. Downing, Prof. Sampson, Judge Garland of Texas, J. L. Venable Esq. Trustees Smith, Lewis, Pope, Rider, Marshal and Johnson and others. 

The teachers and scholars are worthy of much praise for efforts in making this a success.”


Among the notable students participating in the Sumner School’s public examination in June 1874 was a grand-daughter of Mount Vernon, Washingtonian Mary E. Syphax (1859 – 1899), daughter of Charles Syphax (1829 – 1885), grand-daughter of Charles (1791 – 1869) and Maria Carter Custis Syphax (1804 – 1886), great grand-daughter of George Washington Parke Custis (1781 – 1857), great-great grand-daughter of John Parke Custis and great-great-great grand-daughter of Martha Washington (1731 – 1802). 

Members of the respected Syphax family worked closely with Frederick Douglass to raise funds to establish and support the growth of DC’s Public colored school system. Members of the Syphax and Douglass families are well accounted for and represented within the ranks of graduates and faculty of Washington City’s public colored schools for generations. 

The importance of the intersectionality, associations and contributions of these leading families has yet to be told.

After graduating Mary Syphax taught at the John F. Cook School, and in 1881 married at Rev. Francis Grimke’s 15th Street Presbyterian Church. 

In January 1884 Rev. Grimke officiated the private wedding ceremony of Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts.

Tragically Mary Elinor “Mamie” Syphax Brodie passed after a short illness in December 1899 at the age of 40. She was survived by her husband and children.

We cannot overstate the historical significance and consequence of the service and examples set by these leading Black American families — the Douglasses and the Syphaxes — and what their contributions to the social fabric of this country in their time mean to us today. 

JHM & JLM 

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Prof. Solomon G. Brown, first African American official of the Smithsonian Institution, friend to Dr. Frederick Douglass and community activist

EMANCIPATION DAY -

Source available upon request.

With recent announcements of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum naming a new director followed by news the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture, Lonnie G. Bunch III, will become the Smithsonian Institution’s 14th Secretary we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge Professor Solomon G. Brown, who served the Smithsonian Institution for more than a half-century as its first African American employee.

While an activist resident of the Hillsdale community on Elvans Road, Prof. Brown was friends with Dr. Frederick Douglass of Jefferson Street in the nearby Anacostia community. Brown and Douglass attended (and spoke) at the same literary events, local church groundbreakings and school graduations. Prof. Brown was a member of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Upon his passing in 1906, Rev. Francis Grimke, who performed the ceremonies for the second marriage of Dr. Douglass, officiated Brown’s funeral.

Image result for solomon g brownAccording to the Smithsonian, Brown served from 1852 to the early 1900s and during his time at the Smithsonian, he held many titles and performed many duties in service to the Institution. Brown served under the first three Smithsonian Secretaries, Joseph HenrySpencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P. Langley.

As local inhabitants well know the Salvation Army building at Morris Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE is named after Professor Brown.

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Dr. Douglass on Howard University Board of Trustees, March 1888 – March 1889 

Catalogue_of_the_Officers_and_Students_o-page-009Howard University Board of Trustees, 1888 – 1889

REV. WILLIAM W. PATTON, D. D., LL D., President.

BOARD OF TRUSTEES.

HON. SAMUEL C. POMEROY, LL. D., Washington, D. C.
GEN. CHARLES H. HOWARD, Chicago, Ill.
GEN. GEORGE W. BALLOCH, A. M., Washington, D. C.
REV. JOHN M. BROWN, D. D., L.L. D., Washington, D. C.
HON. FREDERICK DOUGLASS, LL. D., Washington, D. C.
FRANCIS H. SMITH, Washington, D. C.
ZALMON RICHARDS, Washington, D. C.
OTIS F. PRESBREY, M. D., Washington, D. C.
JOHN F. COOK, Washington. D. C.
REV. MICHAEL E. STRIEBY, D. D., New York City.
LUDLOW PATTON, New York City.
HON. THOS. J. KIRKPATRICK, Lynchburg, Va.
WILLIAM BALLANTYNE, Washington, D. C.
HON. HENRY STOCKBRIDGE, Baltimore, Md.
REV. FRANK. J. GRIMKE, Washington, D. C.
REV. WILLIAM A. BARTLETT, D. D., Washington, D. C.
ADAM S. PRATT, Washington, D. C.
REV. WILLIAM WARING, Washington, D. C.
HON. JOHN EATON, LL. D., Marietta, O.
EDWARD M. GALLAUDET, LL. D., Washington, D. C.
REV. RUSH R. SHIPPEN, D. D., Washington, D. C.

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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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Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]

Writing in The Journal of Negro History in 1934, Francis J. Grimke reveals details about Frederick Douglass’ 1884 marriage to Helen Pitts previously known only by a very intimate group.

“THE SECOND MARRIAGE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS

In connection with the last anniversary of Mr. Douglass’ birthday, I became reminiscent, and recalled many events, and among them the marriage of Mr. Douglass. While he was Recorder of Deeds, one day, while I was in the neighborhood of his office I thought I would drop in and pay my respects to him. When I entered the room he was seated at his desk eating his lunch, and by his side was a lady seated in conversation with him. In a few minutes she left the room. On seeing me, Mr. Douglass said, “You are just the man that I want to see. I was just thinking about calling on you.” To which I said, “Well, what’s up?” He said, “I am thinking about getting married, and I want you to perform the ceremony.” I said, “I will be delighted to do so.”

I then said to him, “and who is the fortunate lady?”

There were rumors afloat in the community that he was interested in one of two prominent women of the race, and that one or the other, if he ever got married [Anna Murray Douglass, his wife of 44 years, passed away in the fall of 1882], would be his choice. I was curious to know which of them. But to my surprise, neither of them was mentioned. He said, “Did you see the lady that was sitting by me when you came into the room?” I said, Yes. “She is the one.”

And then he went on to tell me her name, Miss Helen Pitts. He said also that he had known the family for years. The father was a well-to-do farmer in Western New York, and was a staunch abolitionist. He had often been at her father’s house; and remembered her well, little dreaming, that in the years to come, she was to be his wife. The time fixed for the wedding was January 24, 1884. Mr. Douglass was sixty years of age, and she was forty-six.

On the evening set for the wedding, two carriages drove up to my door, 1608 R Street, N.W. The bell rang, and Mr. Douglass, Miss Pitts, and Senator and Mrs. B. K. Bruce entered. After bidding them welcome, and chatting for a few minutes, the ceremony was performed. Miss Pitts became Mrs. Douglass. ”

For some background on Grimke and his family, I suggest taking a look at, Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family’s Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders.

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1884 Marriage License for Frederick Douglass of Washington, DC and Helen Pitts of New York

RECORD OF MARRIAGES [2nd entry]

To any Minister of the Gospel authorized to Celebrate Marriages in the District of Columbia, Greeting

You are hereby LICENSED to solemnize the RITES OF MARRIAGE between

Frederick Douglass, of Washington, DC AND Helen Pitts, of New York

if you find no lawful impediment thereto; and having so done you are commanded to appear in the Clerk’s Office of the Supreme Court of said District and certify the same.

Witness my hand and the seal of said Court this 24 day of January 1884

There were only four people present at the exchange of vows between Douglass and Pitts. Douglass’ children literally learned about the marriage through the papers. Pitts’ father, an abolitionist in Western New York who had invited a younger Douglass into his home, disowned his daughter for now marrying Douglass.

Thanks is in order to the DC Archives for generously providing this document.

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