Posts Tagged from the streets

Community Memorial Service for William Alston-El, Co-Founder of Old Anacostia Douglassonians (Sat., April 7, 2018; 9 AM to 11 AM – America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, 2315 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE)

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Washington Post, ‘Metro’ section, April 4, 2018.

William Alston-El was born in the mud and passed on the mountain top as an original Garveyite and Co-Founder of Old Anacostia Douglassonians.

A legendary presence on the streets of Southeast Washington, an internationally known diplomat of corner men and a proud Moorish American, our dear friend will be remembered by family, friends and those whose humanity he uplifted on Saturday, April 7, 2018 from 9 AM to 11 AM at America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, 2315 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

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Dr. Frederick Douglass reflects on Myrtilla Miner, radical white educator and founder of Normal School for Colored Girls which became District of Columbia Teachers College

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Myrtilla Miner, a radical educator.

His whole come up and until his last days Dr. Frederick Douglass ran with visionary radicals of all tribes, nationalities, ethnicities, genders and faiths.

A lesser-known revolutionary, who we feel most appropriate to recognize during Women’s History Month,  is none other than Myrtilla Miner, a local legend in the folklore of Old Washington City.

To keep it funky, Myrtilla Miner was counseled by Dr. Frederick Douglass to pump the brakes on her radical vision to establish a school in Washington City to educate “colored girls” in the early 1850s. Miner disregarded the advice and set up shop in Washington City, protecting her square until her death in 1864.

During his years as a Washingtonian Douglass could never pass Miner’s school without reflecting on its namesake.

While often attending events at the school and donating lecture proceeds, in 1883 Dr. Douglass shared his personal recollections of Miner.

Miner Teachers College - Washington, D.C..jpgYou have often urged me to tell you the little (and it is but little) I remember
of Miss Myrtilla Miner, the founder of what is now the Normal School for Colored Girls in the city of Washington. The task is, in every sense, an agreeable one.

If we owe it to the generations that go before us, and to those which come after us, to make some record of the good deeds we have with in our journey through life, and to perpetuate the memory and example of those who have in a signal manner made themselves serviceable to suffering humanity, we certainly should not forget the brave little woman who first invaded the city of Washington, to establish here a school for the education of a class long despised and neglected.

As I look back to the moral surroundings of the time and place when that school was begun, and the state of public sentiment which then existed in the North as well as in the South; when I remember how low the estimation in which colored people were then held, how little sympathy there was with any effort to dispel their ignorance, diminish their hardships, alleviate their suffering, or soften their misfortunes, I marvel all the more at the thought, the zeal, the faith, and the courage of Myrtilla Miner in daring to be the pioneer of such a movement for education here, in the District of Columbia, the very citadel of slavery, the place most zealously watched and guarded by the slave power, and where humane tendencies were most speedily detected and sternly opposed.

It is now more than thirty years (but such have been the changes wrought that it seems a century) since Miss Miner, in company with Joseph and Phebe Hathaway (brother and sister), called upon me at my printing-office in Rochester, New York, and found me at work, busily mailing my paper, the North Star.

It was my custom to continue my work, no matter who came, and hence I barely looked up to give them welcome, supposing the call to be an ordinary one, perhaps of sympathy with my work, or, more likely, an act of mere curiosity, and continued. I was not long permitted, however, to treat my callers in this unceremonious way. I soon found I was in a presence that demanded my whole attention. A slender, wiry, pale (not over healthy), but singularly animated figure was before me, and startled me with the announcement that she was then on her way to the city of Washington to establish a school for the education of colored girls.

I stopped mailing my paper at once,and gave attention to what was said. I was amazed, and looked to see if the lady was in earnest and meant what she said.

“The doubt in my mind was transient. I saw at a glance that the fire of a real enthusiasm lighted her eyes, and the true martyr spirit flamed in her soul. My feelings were those of mingled joy and sadness.

Here, I thought, is another enterprise, wild, dangerous, desperate, and impracticable, destined only to bring failure and suffering. Yet I was deeply moved with admiration by the heroic purpose of the delicate and fragile person who stood, or rather moved, to and fro before me, for she would not accept a chair.

She seemed too full of her enterprise to think of her own ease, and hence kept in motion all the time she was in my office. Mr. and Miss Hathaway remained silent. Miss Miner and myself did the talking. She advocated the feasibility of her enterprise, and I (timid and faithless) opposed in all earnestness. She said she knew the South; she had lived among slave-holders; she had even taught slaves to read in Mississippi; and she was not afraid of violence in the District of Columbia.

To me, the proposition was reckless, almost to the point of madness. In my fancy, I saw this fragile little woman harassed by the law, insulted in the street, a victim of slave holding malice, and, possibly, beaten down by the mob. The fate of Prudence Crandall in Connecticut and the then recent case of Mrs. Douglass at Norfolk were be fore me; also my own experience in at tempting to teach a Sunday-school in St. Michael’s; and I dreaded the experience which, I feared, awaited Miss Miner.

My argument made no impression upon the heroic spirit before me. Her resolution was taken, and was not to be shaken or changed.

The result, I need not say, has justified her determination.

I never pass by the Miner Normal School for Colored Girls in this city without a feeling of self-reproach that I could have said aught to quench the zeal, shake the faith, and quail the courage of the noble woman by whom it was founded, and whose name it bears.

Truly yours,
FREDERICK Douglass.

WASHINGTON, May 4, 1883.

SOURCE:

Myrtilla Miner: A Memoir (1885)

Bender, Kim. “Myrtilla Miner’s School for African American Girls,” C-SPAN, August 30, 2017,

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Abandoned Frederick Douglass Community Center on Alabama Avenue SE remains despite “New Ward 8”

WIlliam Alston-El stands by the abandoned Frederick Douglass Community Center on Alabama Avenue SE.

WIlliam Alston-El stands by the abandoned Frederick Douglass Community Center on Alabama Avenue SE.

Douglass and Stanton Dwellings may be long gome but this relic of the past remains.

“This is shameful. Even in plain sight, hundreds of cars and people pass here every day, Fred is forgotten. They give out food in the back to people but don’t even have the decency to pick up their boxes. Well, nothing new. Oh, wait, it’s a new day in Ward 8. Haven’t you heard?” – William Alston-El, November 9, 2014

The legacy of John W. Blassingame has been all but forgotten.

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Academics bogard Frederick Douglass but the true power of one of America’s greatest native sons lives on in the the hearts and minds of school aged boys and girls

Courtesy of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Institute

At last year’s Washington Antiquarian Book Fair there was an image of Frederick Douglass I had never seen before glued into a 19th century photo album. Its provenance was from a private collection somewhere in upstate New York. The seller wanted $1,000. I would rather put that towards an original copy of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I kept it moving.

Over the past year I have become familiar with some of the locations in Washington, DC that house Douglass material from Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center to the Library of Congress to the National Archives to the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library. Beyond the city limits there are Douglass materials in special collections at the University of Rochester, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, and elsewhere. One of theses places elsewhere is Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Institute which has material I have never seen before in all my previous reading and research.

No doubt the academics love themselves some Frederick Douglass. But the true eternal power of his life will always be renewed and best honored in the hearts and minds of young school aged boys and girls coming up in communities from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Rochester to Baltimore to Washington, DC to the rural hamlets down south in Alabama and Georgia who for the first team discover and find inspiration in one of America’s greatest native sons.

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Frederick Douglass surprised Dublin merchant by playing “Rocky Road to Dublin” [Wichita Daily Eagle, November 24, 1894]

Frederick Douglass was a renaissance man. We know this. But did you know this…? [First Column, sub-heading “An Amazed Son of Erin”]

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Thank you to Anacostia resident William Alston-El for keeping alive the spirit of Frederick Douglass

If you have been in Anacostia more than once in the past forty years there is a good chance you have come across William Alston-El. Over the past two years I have come to know William, writing about him for stories on Greater Greater Washington. Like Frederick Douglass, he once ran the streets with a reckless abandon. But William has since turned a new corner in his life and takes leadership roles in Anacostia not many others can take. “I show up at all the meetings to speak for those who aren’t there,” he has often told me. When walking the neighborhood William employs tough love as well as encouragement to many of the men and women he has known for decades but are still struggling with substance abuse issues. “If I can change, and make a difference in my community, so can you brother/sister,” he often says. Additionally, William is in touch with the younger generation often imparting advice to them. He can speak their language and has a legitimacy which few others have. William, a painter by trade, advocates the “mechanical arts” much like Douglass did in his later years.

It is through men and women like William that the spirit of Frederick Douglass lives on in today’s Anacostia.

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Helen Pitts Douglass was no simpleton; she could handle a lunatic who knocked on her door with ease [Wash Post, Jan. 27, 1889]

Historic memory has been rather unfair to the wives of Frederick Douglass. Simply told, Douglass’ first wife couldn’t read and his second wife was “second-rate.” These attitudes still exist to this day, just ask the Park Rangers at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (FDNHS) who field questions from the general public seven days a week. The forthcoming work of Dr. Leigh Fought should help to eviscerate these fallacies which have held the minds of both the general public and insular academics for decades.

One of the more interesting items I discovered going through thousands of newspaper stories was this one from January 1889 which ran in the Washington Post. The text speaks for itself and I have been told by staff at the FDNHS that this story has helped calm the nerves of some visitors who rush to uninformed judgments about Douglass’ second wife, Helen Pitts.

“At 9 o’clock yesterday morning John Anderson, a colored man living on the Flats in Hillsdale, and who has been acting in a peculiar manner for several days, became violently insane and rushing from his house ran down Nichols avenue, yelling, gesticulating and scattering pedestrians right and left. Turning up Jefferson street, he ran to the house of Fred Douglas and rang the bell. Pushing his way past the frightened servant girl, he confronted Mrs. Douglass and at once proposed to offer prayer. Mrs. Douglass, who was alone, took in the situation, and tried to quiet John, but suddenly he rushed into the dining-room and entered a closet. Mrs. Douglass quickly shut the door and locked it keeping the lunatic a prisoner until Officer W. T. Anderson came and took him in custody. John is a carpenter by trade, and has been subject to temporary attacks of insanity for some time, but was always considered harmless. He was sent to the police surgeon’s for examination and will probably be committed to the asylum.”

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“Fred Douglass Helps A Church” in Baltimore [New York Times, March 1892]

FRED DOUGLASS HELPS A CHURCH.

Baltimore, March 5. – Some weeks ago Frederick Douglass visited Baltimore in company with his son for the purpose of paying off the mortgage on the Centennial Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The church is the one in which Mr. Douglass first received his religious education, and, finding that it was in financial straits, he came to the rescue and lifted the mortgage.

In the presence of 1,300 persons the Rev. J.L. Thomas, the pastor, burned the mortgage papers. Sunday has been set aside as a day of special service. Fred Douglass will deliver an address.

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Frederick Douglass remembers gathering “scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters” in Baltimore, MD [Life and Times of Frederick Douglass]

Bible pages

Frederick Douglass’ intellect and drive didn’t just come up from slavery;  it came up from the streets.

“My desire to learn increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. I have gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.” – Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1892.

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Message to Frederick Douglass biographers, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” [Dr. Leigh Fought]

The raw streets of Baltimore, Maryland gave the world Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, Tupac Shakur in the 20th century, and the HBO television show “The Wire” in the 21st. Without a doubt were Frederick Douglass alive today (his 19th century self of course) you know he would have thoughts and opinions ready to share on how “The Wire” has somehow integrated itself as equally into today’s street culture (of which it sought to diagnose) and into our common learned culture and popular zeitgeist culture.

To be clear, at 16th & W Street SE a reference to “The Wire” will be as recognizable in the pristine and gated classrooms of the Ivory Towers. Just how is it that former crime reporter David Simon (and his supporting team) could create a show whose cultural impact resonates and cuts across these disparate segments of society? Sounds like an oration Douglass could go wild with.

That said, forgotten in the common memory and mythology of Frederick Douglass is how he came up. Frederick Douglass was  as much from the streets of Baltimore as he was from the fields of Talbot County. These Maryland experiences — in the city and the country — was where Douglass drew the intellectual gunpowder he would use to ignite the thinking minds of crowds, his family, close friends, and enemies for parts of seven decades.

This weekend Dr. Leigh Fought gave a thoughtful and well-researched presentation on Anna Douglass, Frederick Douglass’ wife of 44 years.

In the Q&A session chatter shifted to Love Across Color Lines in which the author is heavy-handed in her speculation that Douglass had an affair that lasted nearly three decades. Dr. Fought and I have both found serious flaws with the citations and the author’s imaginative interpretation of sources.

Speaking of Deidrich’s laudable but faulted effort, as well as future biographers of Douglass, Dr. Fought invoked one of the more notable lines from “The Wire” and the show’s infamous stick-up man, Omar (played by Michael K. Williams who was in “Bullet” alongside Tupac).

“Has everyone seen “The Wire”? You know that line, ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.” Indeed.

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