Posts Tagged Harper’s Weekly

Did Frederick (Bailey) Douglass know Henry Van Meter, who saw Washington and served in the War of 1812?


New National Era. (Washington City): Feb 23, 1871. (3). editor: FREDERICK (Bailey) DOUGLASS

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.

When Governor Nelson’s estate was sold after the war to pay his debts, Henry became the property of a planter beyond the Blue Ridge, on the extreme frontier.

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.

Is it possible Henry Van Meter took his name from the Henry Van Meter (and the Van Meter family) that housed and corresponded with George Washington? We think so. 

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.)

Douglass was a frequent presence in the state of Maine before and after the Civil War. According to the public record, Bangor was a city he visited and formally addressed before and after the war. 

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. 

Henry Van Meter "

Henry Van Meter, with signature. This image was reproduced in Harper’s Magazine while Van Meter was living. Douglass was frequently featured in Harper’s and in 1883 was placed on the popular magazine’s cover.

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Harper’s Weekly November 1883 cover story of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is the most conspicuous American of African descent, and his career is a striking illustration of the nature of free popular institutions. Born a slave, he is to-day, by his own energy and character and courage, an eminent citizen, and his life has been a constant and powerful plea for his people. Over infinite disadvantage and prejudice, his patience, intelligence, capacity, and tenacity have triumphantly prevailed, and in himself he is a repudiation of the current assertions against the colored race. Mr. Douglass’s address at the late Colored Convention showed a comprehension of the situation of the colored people in this country which justified the regard in which he is held, and which explains the leadership that he has held so long.

Its tone toward his people is not that of flattery and sentimentality, but of rebuke and exhortation; and he understands, if no other colored man perceives, the immense and crushing power of that prejudice which overwhelms a race whose color is an ineffaceable sign and suggestion of prolonged servile bondage.

The story of Mr. Douglass’s early life has been told by himself with a simplicity and power which make his autobiography one of the most striking and unique books in our literature. There is no closer and more intimate view of slavery as it was fifty years ago, and it is impossible to read it to-day as a tale of recent American life without incredulity. No man who directly or indirectly, by sophistry, or evasion, or resolute refusal to know the truth, sustained the system of slavery, can read the narrative of Frederick Douglass without sorrow and remorse. Three books contain the most complete and vivid picture of American slavery in its details, in its spirit, and in its influence upon master and slave, and upon industry and society. These are Douglass’s narrative, Olmstead’s Sea-board Slave States, and Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Careful study of these reveals the nature of the malign power with which good men at the South as elsewhere were called to contend.

Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County, Maryland, sixty-five or sixty-six years ago. Like all slaves, he was not permitted to know his age, but he supposes, from the conversations of his master which he overheard, that he was about seventeen years old in 1835. His master was probably his father, and he was at different times a field hand and hired out to mechanical work in town. He was partially taught to read by a kind mistress, whose husband “stopped the nonsense” as soon as he knew it, and he taught himself by stealth to write. He was undoubtedly a very clever boy, and it was perhaps an instinctive apprehension that his cleverness might make his fellow-slaves troublesome which caused him to be frightfully flogged and abused in the hope of breaking his spirit. Fortunately the savage treatment stimulated rather than subdued his manhood, and when living near Baltimore in 1835 he organized a party of his comrades to attempt to escape. The scheme was betrayed, and he expected to be sent to Alabama; but this doom was averted, and, waiting patiently a little while, on the 3d of September, 1838, he quietly left Baltimore by a railroad train, and soon after reached New York, at two o’clock in the morning.

He was working in a ship-yard at the time, and observing a sympathy for his race among the sailors, he thought that he could disguise himself as a sailor and so escape. He had caught the air and the vocabulary of sailors, and carefully dressing himself and carrying a “protection,” which he does not say how he procured, and knowing that if he offered to buy a ticket he would be exposed to a searching examination, he jumped on the train after it was in motion. The disguise was so good that men who knew him did not recognize him. The conductor, passing through the cars, asked for his free papers, and Douglass, with a sailor’s air, showed his protection, and said that he did not carry his papers to sea, from which he had just returned. So the slave became a freeman, and the most powerful witness against the woes of the house of bondage found his tongue.

In 1841, at an antislavery convention at Nantucket, Mr. Garrison first saw Mr. Douglass, who had vaguely heard of the abolitionists, and was curious to know what they proposed to do. He was persuaded to address the convention, and after apologizing for his ignorance, the slave of three years before spoke with such force and eloquence that Mr. Garrison said that he had never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment. From that time Mr. Douglass was one of the most popular and powerful of the antislavery orators, and his life was devoted to arousing public sentiment, that the liberty which he had gained for himself might be secured for his fellow victims of slavery. He shared the fate of all the antislavery pioneers. He was denounced, mobbed, and pursued, and the very fact that he was a living example of the abuses of his race seemed to give peculiar malignity to the hatred with which he was regarded. If such men were slaves, how unspeakable was the wrong of slavery to humanity! Isaiah Rynders, who says in a recent statement that he “got mad with Garrison because he was an infidel,” replied to a speaker in one of the antislavery meetings who cited Douglass as evidence of the equality of the races, “That won’t do; he is half white, and that accounts for him.”“Oh,” retorted Douglass, “then I am only your half-brother,” which, Captain Rynders adds, was “as good a shot as ever I got in my life.”

In later years Mr. Douglass has been an editor, a popular lyceum lecturer, and a devoted Republican orator. He was a Republican Presidential Elector in New York, and he has been Marshal of the District of Columbia. His address, of which we have spoken, at the late Colored Convention, was the wisest word that has been spoken for his race for many a year. He is still a Republican, but he exhorts his brethren to subordinate party attachment to their own welfare. Mr. Douglass is one of the most interesting figures in the country, and no American career has had more remarkable and suggestive vicissitudes than his.
George William Curtis.

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Lost buildings of Howard University… because of bad bricks?

If you’ve been in the city more than two days you most likely have perspective enough to have seen something come and go. That’s how it is. But for historians of the city who specialize in the “built environment” they can tell you Monday morning straight through to Sunday night about all of the buildings that have been lost, and these are just the buildings of recent decades.

According to 1996’s The Long Walk: The Placemaking Legacy of Howard University many of the campus’ original buildings are no more which would be expected for any institution as old as Howard, the city’s third university.

But (with help from a LOC reference librarian) discovering a March 1869 article from Harper’s Weekly provides an explanation for disappearing buildings we haven’t heard before: bad bricks.


Full text:


The history of Howard University, of which we give an illustration on this page, enforces an important moral in connection with the construction of public buildings. The numerous accidents which have happened in the country from the recklessness of speculative builders – among which, as being the most disastrous, the falling of the Lawrence Mills, over ten years ago, stands out most prominently – ought ere this to have taught there terrible lesson. In connection with the Howard University we do not purpose to denounce any thing or any body, but only to state a few facts.

For some years past an attempt has been made to bring into use for building purposes a patent composite block which should displace a common brick. A company was organized in New York city; the manufacture of the new block was commenced on a large scale; a large number of edifices were constructed from it in various parts of the country; and patent rights were sold for different geographical sections. Indestructibility, beauty of color and texture, and cheapness were claimed for the new invention. General Howard and other gentlemen organized a company in Washington, purchasing the patent right for $10,000. Thus it happened that when the Howard University for the education of colored youth was set on foot a hundred and fifty acres were bought north of the Capitol, and it was determined to build the edifice, as also the private structures upon the grounds, of the new material. It is asserted that $300,000 of public money has been used in forwarding this enterprise. The blocks were constructed from sand taken from the grounds, mixed with lime.

The result has been a failure. The material does not answer its purpose. Portions of the buildings constructed have crumbled, and none of them are considered safe. It may be that the blocks were not properly manufactured, or that they were too hastily used; but certainly, as manufactured and used in this case, they have proved unsatisfactory and useless. Our illustration shows a pile of these blocks in the foreground.

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