Posts Tagged Uniontown
Folger Shakespeare Library Blog: “Frederick Douglass, A Shakespearean in Washington” (John Muller, July 19, 2019)
In his life and times Frederick Douglass was known around the world as an orator, abolitionist, suffragist, and reformist. While living in Washington, DC, where he spent the last quarter-century of his life, he was also known to many as an admirer of William Shakespeare.
In the late 19th century, while Frederick Douglass lived in Anacostia, scores of notable men and women came to Cedar Hill. In conversation Monday with Mr. Donet D. Graves, Esq. about his ancestor James Wormley, I learned of a dinner Douglass held hosting officials from Liberia.
For Douglassonian scholars this should be of some intrigue because Douglass was forceful in his denunciation of “colonization” efforts throughout his life. Without getting too much into the specific history of Liberia or “colonization” efforts both nationally and in the District, I only learned a couple years ago that there was such a concentration of black Marylanders in Liberia that there was a republic named “Maryland” in Liberia. Maps of Africa from the late 18th century – early 19th century regularly reflect this. Today there is a county in Liberia named Maryland.
Without further delay, here’s the brief news item.
MARSHALL DOUGLASS entertained at dinner at his residence, at Uniontown, yesterday afternoon. Dr. E. W. Blyden, minister of Liberia to England, and Hon. John H. Smythe, U.S. minister resident to Liberia, at which dinner were also present Senator Bruce, Prof. Greener, L. H. Douglass, Robert Parker, James Wormley, Fred. Douglass, jr., and Charles Douglass.
Evening Star. 25 June 1880, p. 1 Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Thank you to Donet D. Graves, Esq., a gentleman and scholar, for this helpful lead.
Frederick Douglass’ name misspelled in 1877 Congressional Directory [45th U.S. Congress, First Session]
Frederick Douglass & his sons lived in greater Anacostia area in early 1870s; before Frederick Douglass purchased Cedar Hill in the fall of 1877
When Frederick Douglass moved to Uniontown, horse thieves, wild animals, and escapees from the Government Hospital for the Insane roamed the pastoral roadways. In just over twenty years since its founding the suburban subdivision of Uniontown, and the adjoining villages, had seen the erection of school houses, churches, stables, new homes and businesses, and meeting halls. Douglass was no stranger to this community.
The next neighborhoods over from Uniontown were known as Potomac City, Hillsdale, and Barry Farm (developed by the Freedmen’s Bureau); the last two names remain in currency today. With more than $50,000 set aside by General Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, in a trust to develop “normal collegiate institutions or universities” these funds were used to purchase 375 acres from the descendents of James D. Barry in 1867. Sitting just beneath the Government Hospital for the Insane, which saw its first patient in 1855, the sale of lots would help relieve “the immediate necessities of a class of poor colored people in the District of Columbia.” Within two years, more than 260 families had made Barry Farm their home, the Douglass boys included.
Writing in his autobiography General Howard recalled, “Some of those who bought one acre or two-acre lots were fairly well off. I found it better to have a few among the purchasers who were reasonably educated, and of well-known good character and repute, to lead in the school and church work, and so I encouraged such to settle alongside the more destitute.” Howard would often bring government officials to Barry Farm to show them the self-sufficient community, largely made up of freedmen. “Everyone who visited the Barry Farm and saw the new hopefulness with which most of the dwellers there were inspired, could not fail to regard the entire enterprise as judicious and beneficent.”
Testifying before a Congressional Committee in 1870, Edgar Ketchum offered a sketch of a Barry Farm homestead. “You may see another (man) some thirty-six years of age, very black, very strong, very happy, working on his place. His little house cost him $90. You see his mother; that aged ‘aunty,’ as she raises herself up to look at you, will tell you that she has had eleven children, and that all of them were sold away from her.” Ketchum continued, “She lived down in Louisiana. The man will tell you that he is one of those children. He went down to Texas, and when he came up through Louisiana and Alabama he found his old mother and brought her up with him, along with his wife and son. And there they live.”
And there, all three of Douglass’s sons initially settled upon moving to Washington in the late 1860s, a testament to the family’s creed and commitment to being on the front lines of uplifting their race. Charles and Lewis would move across town while Frederick, Jr. would spend the rest of his life on nearby Nichols Avenue, today Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. In the early years of the 1870s, when in Washington to run The New National Era and serve on the Legislative Council, records indicate Frederick was living in the Anacostia area with one or all of his sons.
Scholars and independent researchers of Frederick Douglass have all most likely come across a reference or two in their reading of the Uniontown Shakespeare Club, in which Douglass independently participated at least twice. During his second reading with the group, in late 1877 Douglass performed the role of “Shylock” in The Merchant of Venice.
In an unfinished letter dated December 21, 1877 to “My dear Friend” Douglass writes, “I spoke to a very [illegible] and elegant audience at Mt. Pleasant Wednesday night, and read with the Uniontown Shakespeare Club last night.
The play was the Merchant of Venice and my part [was] Shylock. This is my second meeting with the Club. I find it very pleasant and entertaining and I have no one at my home to go with me and I often fancy that I am losing one half of the happiness of such occasions because in all such matters I am alone.”
For anyone who has taken a tour of Cedar Hill and paid close attention they have most likely seen (or heard a Ranger point it out) the large print of Othello and Desdemona, from Shakspeare’s Othello, prominently displayed just above the mantle in the living room.
Tireless advocate of the cause and public intellectual C.R. Gibbs knows from personal experience Douglass’ love of Shakespeare. Decades ago Gibbs had the unique pleasure of reading from Douglass’ personal Shakespeare collection.
[ED Note: In speaking with friends in Anacostia I have mentioned this club and Douglass’ involvement with it. The near uniform response is, “We need to start the club up again!” Huh, man.]
With the formation of the Metropolitan Police Department in 1861, there was an immediate tension between the flood of military recruits in the city and the newly constituted municipal force. Lingarn B. Anderson, an Anacostia native, was one of the first policemen, attached to the Anacostia precinct his whole career. (According to City Directories, Anderson, of the 300 block of Jefferson Street, was a neighbor to Frederick Douglass in old Anacostia.)
The old Anacostia substation, originally the first precinct, “was a converted coal office with a part of the room roped off, and we had to keep guard there all the time or prisoners would step over the rope and walk out of the front door.”
Anderson reminisced a half-century later to a newspaperman and the chief of police about the “devilment” that crawled in the city during the war. “Then there were Southern sympathizers,” he remembered. “They’d get busy in barrooms with a gang of abolitionists, and the first thing you knew there would be artillery play, and some of those boys could shoot.” He had a bullet wound in his left thigh to prove it.
“I hunted for him,” Anderson said, his memory shifting to John Wilkes Booth’s escape on horseback from Washington which took Booth over the Navy Yard bridge and into Uniontown where he waited for Davy Herold before galloping towards Southern Maryland. “We heard for a while that he was around Anacostia.”
Suspicions that John Wilkes Booth might be hiding out in Uniontown were not unfounded as testimony of the Lincoln Conspiracy Trial revealed. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Mary Surratt, and others associated with Booth were seen around the area in the immediate weeks and months leading to President Lincoln’s assassination.
Robert F. Martin’s Farmers and Drovers Hotel, at the junction of Monroe and Harrison Streets in Uniontown about a hundred yards from the Navy Yard bridge, was a frequent point of rest for Marylanders from Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County, Bryantown in Charles County, and Leonardtown in St. Mary’s County bringing their products to the markets of Washington. In March of 1865 Martin was appointed postmaster for Uniontown, in Washington, D.C. The Baltimore Sun commented that the “post office there will be of great advantage to the large number of mechanics and other workmen, soldiers.”
During the trial Martin testified he had seen Dr. Mudd in the market on Christmas Eve 1864 and that in March and April of 1865 he had stayed at his hotel. Martin could not verify if Mudd was or was not up from his Southern Maryland farm for the purpose of meeting Booth in Washington.
Farmers’ & Drovers’ Hotel, Harrison Street, Anacostia & Robert F. Martin [1877 Boyd’s City Directory, Washington, DC]
Before the Civil War a Farmers & Drovers Hotel was off Maryland Avenue. Later the Farmers & Drovers Hotel in Anacostia would come to be more widely known. For some years it was run by Robert F. Martin, who was appointed Postmaster in 1865 and served until 1881 when Henry A. Griswold, a banker, real estate investor, and eventual President of the Anacostia Street Railway company. Among Uniontown’s prominent citizens at the time was their new neighbor Marshal Frederick Douglass who lived a couple blocks off Harrison Street.
Nearly one-hundred and fifty years ago there was a hotel and a post office in Uniontown. Today, there’s no post office or hotel within Historic Anacostia.
According to Arthur Hecht’s extensive research into the history of the postal service in the city for the Washington Philatelic Society, Anacostia’s first post office was established on February 6, 1849. It was discontinued on December 3, 1855 and then reestablished less than three months later on February 26, 1856.
The name was formally changed from Anacostia to Uniontown on March 9, 1856 and then changed back to Anacostia on February 8, 1869. (I need to consult another set of notes but the name change from Uniontown to Anacostia is reflected in the Congressional Record.) The post office in Anacostia was then discontinued on July 31, 1900.
Among Anacostia’s Postmasters were Robert F. Martin (appointed March 9, 1865), Henry A. Griswold (appointed October 31, 1881), and George Pyles (appointed twice), and Julias Tolson (appointed November 6, 1894). According to Hecht the annual compensation was $25 in 1865, $66 in 1867, $40 in 1869, and $80 in 1871.
In the Baltimore Sun’s “Washington Letter” column from March 13, 1865 it was announced that Robert F. Martin was appointed postmaster.
“A post office has just been established by the Postmaster General at what is called Uniontown, Washington county, D.C., with Mr. Robert F. Martin as postmaster. The location of this town is immediately opposite the Washington navy yard, on the east side of the Anacostia River, at the termination of the bridge and being near to Giesboro’, the great cavalry and quarmaster’s depot, the post office there will be of great advantage to the large number of mechanics and other workmen, soldiers, & c., there stationed.
Frederick Douglass monthly statement from Robert F. Martin, dealer in groceries, provisions, feed, & C. at Cor. of Monroe & Harrison Streets, Uniontown, DC [Nov. 6, 1881]
During his quarter century of living, working, and paying taxes to the District of Columbia Frederick Douglass was not an abstract, impersonal, aloof resident. He walked the streets, he attended meetings organized to advocate for District suffrage, he mentored students at Howard University, he went to church, and he went to the store.
Viewing the personal receipts available on the Library of Congress’ Frederick Douglass Papers collection you can see Douglass had a collection of favorite tailors, a favorite fine tea shop, a favorite house painter, and a handful of favorite grocers. Throughout his years in DC, even if these merchants would change locations Douglass’ business would follow their move.
Historians have analyzed Douglass’ relationships with President Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Martin Delany, Ottilie Assing, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and other notable men and women of his era, but his interactions and relationships with the “little guy” have evaded investigation.
One of the men in Uniontown Douglass knew and was friendly with was Robert F. Martin, a man of many hats and influence in old Uniontown. Martin was at one time or another the Postmaster for Anacostia (Uniontown), the proprietor of the infamous Farmers and Drovers Hotel, and a dealer in groceries, provisions and feed at the prime time corner of Monroe & Harrison Street, today the corner of Good Hope Road & Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.
Don’t believe everything you read; the offices of “The New Era” were not in Uniontown, McFeely error “blasphemous”
I can say with metaphysical certitude that Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (for his 1982 work on U.S. Grant) William McFeely is well off-target when he writes in his 1991 book, Frederick Douglass, that “when the New Era, of which [Douglass] was a sponsor, began publication in January 1870, its offices were in Uniontown, a part of the District of Columbia across the Anacostia River; the number of black citizens in Washington was growing, and a good many of them were building houses there.” [Pg. 271, 4th paragraph, 1995 edition]
McFeely got the first part wrong, the second part right (which we will address in future posts). I have found no evidence to support McFeely’s claim that The New Era was published in Uniontown. All sources I’ve discovered contradict McFeely, whose careless reference is not cited.
Arguably the “official” or definitive source on where the offices of The New Era were when it began publication is the 1870 Boyd’s City Directory (the 19th century version of the 20th century Yellow Pages). The New Era, a weekly paper, is listed as being published at “406 11th st.” While there is no quadrant identifier – nw, sw, se, or ne – at this time, in Uniontown the streets did not have alpha-numeric names. Uniontown streets had Presidential-themed names, established in 1854 when the Union Land Association began sales of the suburb’s first lots. Furthermore, if The New Era was, indeed, printed in Uniontown the city directory would have noted that clearly.
All five years The New Era, which would change its name slightly in ensuing years, is listed in the City Directory with its offices noted on the 400 block of 11th Street. This location put the paper “[e]dited by colored men” in approximate proximity to “Newspaper Row” which is immortalized in a January 1874 Harper’s article, “Washington News,” by Benjamin Perley Poore.
While McFeely is an industry lauded historian, Leigh Fought (working on a book about Douglass) has also found room to quibble with McFeely over a minor, yet rather consequential detail in his book about the background of Helen Pitts, Douglass’ second wife.
The New Era is only mentioned four times in McFeely’s work of more than 385 pages. In those four references, one of which we have already noted, McFeely never offers to say when, why, or how this upstart paper would have moved its offices crosstown from Uniontown, the rural southside of the city, to the hub of journalistic activity, right off of Pennsylvania Avenue, “America’s Main Street.”
I find this error to not be minor; it is major.
It is egregious, sloppy, and as a journalist with respect for and a shared fraternity with the “black press” we find this error blasphemous to the legacy of Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC. A legacy which is yet understood, and yet appreciated. We owe ourselves, our city, and the memory of one of the greatest Americans of the 19th century the honor to do his memory justice.
Both Benjamin Quarles and Philip Foner’s works on Douglass treat “The New Era” critically, respectfully, and accurately based on scholarship. McFeely’s work can make no such claims.