Posts Tagged J. Sella Martin
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)
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
As a front line warrior-pharaoh Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass survived danger zones from his Tuckahoe birth to initiation as a “Point Boy” to his later years as a Washingtonian where his proclivity to walk the city streets was observed by the New York Tribune.
In the committed cause lives were lost. Dr. Douglass, not dissimilar to youngsters being raised within the tempestuous communities of Baltimore, Rochester and Washington City, was exposed to brutality and savagery at an early age, a birthright inheritance of American slavery.
Inter and intra-neighborhood violence and harassment by law enforcement remains an element of life in contemporary Douglassonian communities. Conditions faced by school-aged children in Old Anacostia have troubling similarities to conditions Frederick Bailey negotiated in pursuit of his liberation.
The spirit of Dr. Douglass is a guardian angel with wingspan and reach expansive to shelter and comfort the fallen and lost souls. There are generations, including the late William Alston-El, a legendary indigenous Old Anacostia Douglassonian, who lost classmates, cellmates, friends and family to the streets yet elevated and uplifted his own humanity to serve as an international corner-man ambassador. My friend William is a modern lost comrade of the spirit of Dr. Douglass.
Independent research by biographer Dickson Preston confirmed the archival record of the death — and potential open murder case, as recalled in the Narrative — of “Denby” on the Lloyd plantation. Other early incidents of ultra violence in the life of Frederick Douglass and his closest family are recorded in his autobiographies, including his imprisonment in Easton, Maryland for plotting an organized escape.
Coming up as a young lion Dr. Douglass came up within a complex danger zone to achieve his freedom. Alongside Anna, a militant abolitionist, the Douglass household in Rochester was an active Underground Railroad station.
Within the city of Rochester and surrounding towns, villages and counties of Western New York Dr. Douglass was widely known as an active conductor. As the Civil War approached the daily sheets reported fugitives being directed to the newspaper office of Editor Douglass.
Before his execution by the government for a failed attempt to seize a federal weapons arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, abolitionist John Brown, in company with his sons, delivered homicide upon pro-slavery factions in “Bleeding Kansas.”
The presence of Dr. Douglass commanded respect as equally with Methodist preachers as with runaway slave-scholars and radical young journalists, such as Ida Wells, armed with pen and pistol.
In the whirlwind Dr. Douglass lost family, friend and foe.
Less than a year before his own flight from Fell’s Point editor Elijah Lovejoy was killed by mob in Illinois. While establishing himself as a local fugitive-slave scholar and abolitionist in Massachusetts and connecting with William Lloyd Garrison riots in Cincinnati broke out. Charles Van Loon, a preacher and abolitionist, was attacked and killed in late 1847 just weeks after sharing the stage with Dr. Douglass.
Weeks after speaking with Abraham Lincoln in Washington City the first American President was assassinated by a deranged actor ready to conspire and murder in the name of white supremacy. On Election Day in October 1871 Douglass’ associate and radical educator Octavius Catto was murdered in Philadelphia. In 1876 John Sella Martin, a young man Douglass looked out for, succumbed to death by his own hand.
While it is the style of historians to fashion an event, institution or person this way or that way, prejudicial to their own perspective, Dr. Douglass is of infinite styles and smarts. Neither preachers, biographers nor newspaper editors can ever fashion Dr. Douglass nor his family.
The smarts of Dr. Douglass can only be understood by Gods who have safeguarded generations of men and women preaching rebellion on street corners as long as there have been street corners to preach on.
Somehow and someway Dr. Douglass survived. The Gods of the Streets know. Biographers do not.
This was supposed to be an introduction to two specific small anecdotes which demonstrate and edify the point that Dr. Douglass survived danger zones but it somehow became its own entry.
To be continued …
Frederick Douglass, J. Sella Martin, John Mercer Langston attend parade in Baltimore celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment [The New Era, May 26, 1870]
“Not less than ten thousand colored people were in the march, and ten thousand more lined the sidewalks” at the scene of a grand parade in Baltimore on May 19, 1870 celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave male citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It had been ratified and enacted that spring. Included in the cavalcade was Anacostia Club No. 1, an advance guard of eight men with muskets leading fifty men clad in Indian costume in front of a wagon of twenty women “dressed in the costume of Indian squaws, and several of them carried in their arms infants.” The organization carried a banner proclaiming “We are the True Supporters of the Republican Party. Anacostia Club organized March 26, 1870.”
At the front of the procession were the carriages of Frederick Douglass, John Sella Martin, and John M. Langston, of Howard University, “Every class and condition was represented – old men worn out by the toll of many years of servitude; young men whose early manhood was saved from degradation by the effects of Freedom; and a great army of boys and girls, in whose lives the auction-block will not be a hideous reminiscence,” wrote The New Era.
The band played its last introductory note, the master of ceremonies spoke quickly, and Frederick Douglass was before a crowd of Baltimoreans that knew Douglass as a son of Maryland. “During the last thirty years I have often appeared before the people as a slave, sometimes as a fugitive slave, but always in behalf of the slave. But today I am permitted to appear before you as an American citizen.” Douglass took his audience back for a moment, “When toiling on the plantation we slaves desired to talk of emancipation, but there stood the overseer, and a word could ensure a flogging.” Recalling a dexterity now known as code-switching, Douglass further told his attentive listeners, “To talk about emancipation without being discovered we invented a vocabulary, and when the overseer thought we were talking of the most simple thing we were really speaking of emancipation, but in a way that was Greek to them.” Applause and laughter broke out. “The negro has now got the three belongings of American freedom. First, the cartridge box, for when he got the eagle on his button and the musket on his shoulder he was free. Next came the ballot box; some of its most earnest advocates now hardly saw it three years ago, but we’ll forgive them now. Next we want the jury-box,” demanded Douglass.
Speaking before a large crowd of his compatriots Douglass preached, “Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school and show that besides the cartridge box, the ballot box and jury box you have also the knowledge box.” Wishful and encouraging, he said, “Build on for those who come after you. I am no orator. The orators who are to come up in hereafter the colored race will throw me and Langston far into the back ground.” Telling the crowd to “get education and get money” at all costs in order to be independent, Douglass told them, “I found that God never began to hear my prayers for liberty until I began to run. Then you ought to have seen the dust rise behind me in answer to prayer.”
In the 1870s Douglass saw, among others, Charles Remond, Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, William Lloyd Garrison to the grave. Another man that Douglass outlived was John Sella Martin, one of the main antagonists who courted Douglass to back the start-up of a negro newspaper in Washington, DC in the years following the Civil War.
Born enslaved, Martin was learned as he came to be a valet de chambre, or personal assistant, to his owner. Like Douglass, he got ghost and fled to the North where he became affiliated with the Church.
Martin’s name appears on the inaugural masthead of The New Era (January 13. 1870), but by the fall his name’s no longer affiliated with the paper. Less than six year years later, Martin, more than a decade younger than Douglass, was dead.
News of his death was carried in the New York Times.