Posts Tagged Robert H. Terrell

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)


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. 


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        IT is a great pity that some Boswell was not at the elbow of Frederick Douglass all the days of his later life to jot down and to preserve to posterity his precious gems of speech. It is painful to think that some of his most delightful sayings, and pleasing bon mots have never appeared in print, and are irrecoverably lost. Mr. Douglass was an unrivaled talker and liked to talk among his friends. One hour with him at his home on Cedar Hill when he was in the vein of talk was worth a week’s reading of books.

In private conversation there was a sparkle in Mr. Douglass words, a flow in his sentiments, a grace in his manner as sweet as summer, a calm and cheerful philosophy that no pen can photograph, no language accurately illustrate. He could tell of his own trials and triumphs in the most modest way. I once heard him repeat a climax to one of his famous speeches delivered forty years ago. It was eloquent even in its repetition. On some patriotic occasion he had been invited to speak. Having declared to his audience that he was no part of that day or that event, he said: “There is no mountain so high, no valley so deep, no plain so extensive in all this broad land where I may stand and call these hands my own.” I quote from memory. And then there would be tears in his voice. He could relate an incident with so much pathos that there would be few dry eyes among his listeners. He used to tell how he had been invited to deliver an address in other days in our Western towns. Quite an audience assembled to hear him. When he had concluded his speech no man was found gracious enough to invite him to his home and offer him a bed and a supper. So he wandered away down the road all alone, at last into a deserted graveyard, and while standing there amidst the graves of the dead the thought came to him that “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son man hath not where to lay his head.” Said Martin Luther, “Sorrow has pressed many sweet songs out of me.” Injustice to an oppressed people and sorrow for their condition gave both music and strength to the utterances of Frederick Douglass.

Mr. Douglass believed in the colored people. He believed that in this country there is a great future for them and that they will ultimately justify every prophecy for good made with regard to them. He not only gave expression to his belief in their ability to become capable men of business if given a fair trial, but he emphasized that confidence by contributing his money liberally to help their industrial enterprises. Right here in the city of Washington he was the first President of the Industrial Building and Savings Company; a large stock holder in the Alpha Life Insurance Company, and one of the heaviest depositors in the Capital Savings Bank –all institutions controlled and managed by colored men. It is fresh in the memory of everyone how he attempted three years ago to establish what was called the Freedom Manufacturing Company. The object of this concern was to buy a part of the old estate in Maryland upon which Mr. Douglass had lived and suffered as a slave, and there to plant a great industrial school for colored boys and girls as well as build factories that would give employment to hundreds of colored men and women. The scheme failed utterly, because of the lack of support by the colored people. Its death carried with it many hundreds of Mr. Douglass’ dollars.

I saw Justice Harlan, of the United States Supreme Court, at Mr. Douglass funeral, paying his last respects to one who in life had been his friend. It was a memorable occasion when I last saw Judge Harlan and Frederick Douglas together. It was a scene that represented the most striking contrast between the periods of the history of our nation. The Honorable Justice was presiding officer of a meeting at which Mr. Douglass was the chief speaker. Only thirty-five years before a Justice of the same court had made his name notorious by rendering a decision that placed even Frederick Douglass outside of the pale of human association. Roger Brooke Taney, in his elaborate opinion in the famous Dred Scott case declared that a Negro had neither social nor civil rights, nor legal capacity. When Frederick Douglass and Justice Harlan met on the same platform, on the occasion referred to, each valuing the other for his worth as a man, here was a scene that represented a change in public sentiment that was more than revolutionary.

The Monthly Review.

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