John Muller explores Frederick Douglass's final years in Washington D.C., a part of Douglass's life rarely written about.
The remarkable journey of Frederick Douglass from fugitive slave to famed orator and author is well recorded. Yet little has been written about Douglass's final years in Washington, D.C. Journalist John Muller explores how Douglass spent the last eighteen years of his life professionally and personally in his home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia. The ever-active Douglass was involved in local politics, from aiding in the early formation of Howard University to editing a groundbreaking newspaper to serving as marshal of the District. During this time, his wife of forty-four years, Anna Murray, passed away, and eighteen months later, he married Helen Pitts, a white woman. Unapologetic for his controversial marriage, Douglass continued his unabashed advocacy for the rights of African Americans and women and his belief in American exceptionalism. Through meticulous research, Muller has created a fresh and intimate portrait of Frederick Douglass of Anacostia.
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About the Author
John Muller is a former Metro reporter for The Washington Times and current contributor to Capital Community News and Greater Greater Washington. His writing and reporting has appeared in Next American City, Washington History, The Washington Post, The Georgetowner, The Washington Informer and Suspense Magazine. Muller is a 2007 graduate of George Washington University, B.A. Public Policy. Frank Faragasso was the historian for the National Park Service's Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington D.C. for sixteen years. During his tenure, Dr. Faragasso promoted an understanding of who Douglass was and why he is important to our history. To this end, Dr. Faragasso organized the first international conference on Douglass in 1999.
Ka'mal McClarin is the Curator of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington D.C. He earned his Ph.D. in United States and Public History at Howard University in 2012 and was the Editor of Frederick Douglass: A Voice for Freedom and Justice"."
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Mr. Douglass Goes to Washington
It was not uncommon as well for Congressmen, Bureau officers, and the loitering gentry of Washington to so embarrass themselves at the gaming tables as to be obliged to sell their body servants.
— George Alfred Townsend, Washington, Outside and Inside, 1873
By the time Frederick Douglass's feet first touched down on the unpaved streets and mud-caked sidewalks of Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1863, the Civil War was in its third year. Just weeks before, Douglass's eldest son, Lewis, a soldier with the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, had stormed the Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and survived to tell about it.
During Douglass's first interview with President Lincoln, he advised the commander in chief of the Union forces on policies that would attract black men to enlist en mass: equal pay, meritorious promotion, an agreement with "the Confederate States to treat colored soldiers, when prisoners, as prisoners of war" and a declaration that when colored soldiers were "murdered in cold blood," the Union would "retaliate in kind." According to Paul and Stephen Kendrick's recent scholarship, President Lincoln replied:
Mr. Douglass, you know that it was with great difficulty that I could get the colored soldiers, or get colored men, into the army at all. You know the prejudices against them; you know the doubt that was felt in regard to their ability as soldiers, and it was necessary at the first that we should make some discrimination against them; they were on trial.
Douglass and Lincoln, both self-made men, ended their meeting with a newfound respect for each other. Lincoln had a war to win, and Douglass knew it could be won by putting the musket into the hands of black troops. So did Douglass's son Lewis. "I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops — we would put an end to this war," Lewis famously wrote to his future wife from the front lines.
By the fall of 1863, enlistment of black soldiers had begun in earnest, with the full backing of President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant. According to the Bureau of the United States Colored Troops, black soldiers filled the Union ranks of 142 infantry regiments, 13 artillery regiments, 1 independent battery and 7 cavalry regiments; they worked as engineers and served at sea. In total, more than 209,000 black Americans wore the uniform of their country. Twenty-three received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force. More than 36,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. With the enlistment of black troops and the overall technological and materials advantage of the Union, by the beginning of 1865, the Confederacy was on the brink of defeat. On March 13, 1865, less than a month before Confederate general Robert E. Lee's ultimate surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant, the Confederate Congress passed a law calling for the enlistment of black troops.
Back in Washington to hear President Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address from the Capitol's portico on the morning of March 4, 1865, Douglass sensed "murder in the air," as the "Confederate cause was on its last legs." The night before, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Salmon P. Chase had entertained Douglass. "He had known me in early anti-slavery days," Douglass wrote of the former Ohio governor in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, "and had welcomed me to his home and table when to do so was a strange thing in Washington, and the fact was by no means an insignificant one." Maneuvering through the morning crowd of thousands of onlookers, Douglass "got right in front of the east portico," within range of President Lincoln. Eyeing Douglass, Lincoln pointed him out to Vice President Andrew Johnson. "Mr. Johnson, without knowing perhaps that I saw the movement, looked quite annoyed that his attention should be called in that direction," Douglass remembered years later. "So I got a peep into his soul. As soon as he saw me looking at him, suddenly he assumed rather an amicable expression of countenance." Trusting his visceral instincts, "which all subsequent developments" would prove true, Douglass "felt that, whatever else the man might be, he was no friend to my people."
In a speech that ran less than five minutes, President Lincoln sought to mend the country's pain. His solemn address concluded:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
When Douglass clapped his hands in jubilation, he scanned the crowd and "saw in faces of many about me expressions of widely different emotion." The inaugural reception was later that evening at the Executive Mansion. As "freedom had become the law of the republic, and colored men were on the battle-field mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country," Douglass crashed the party to "offer his congratulations to the President with those of other citizens."
Ever bold, Douglass wanted to share the experience with good company. He had looked "in vain for some one of my own color to accompany me" but found nothing but excuses from his fellow "colored friends." Mary L. Dorsey, the wife of prosperous Philadelphia caterer and former enslaved Marylander Thomas J. Dorsey, who had been with Douglass at Lincoln's inauguration, joined him for the reception. As they approached the door of the White House, two policemen forbade their entrance. If President Lincoln knew he was at the door, the president would order his admission, Douglass told the police. Not budging, Douglass and Mrs. Dorsey were whisked to a "temporary passage for the exit of visitors." This would not do. Seeing a friendly face, Douglass asked a man passing by to tell Lincoln he was at the door. Within a moment's time, Douglass and the president were face-to-face in the East Room. Lincoln, calling Douglass his friend for all within earshot to hear, asked Douglass what he thought of his speech. "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort," Douglass reported. Within weeks, President Lincoln was dead, the first American president felled by an assassin's bullet. Andrew Johnson, who had looked at Douglass and Mrs. Dorsey with "bitter contempt and aversion," was sworn in as the seventeenth president of the United States on April 15, 1865.
Less than a year later, in February 1866, Douglass and Lewis, along with other prominent "colored representatives," including George T. Downing and John F. Cook, met with President Johnson. According to widely published reports, Douglass followed Downing in, saying:
Mr. President: We are not here to enlighten you, sir, as to your duties as chief magistrate of this republic, but to show our respect and to present, in brief, the claims of our race to your favorable consideration. In the order of Divine Providence, you are placed in a position to save or destroy us — to bless or blast us. I mean our whole race. Your noble and humane predecessor placed in your hands the ballot with which to save ourselves.
Johnson would prove wholly unsympathetic to the plight of the freedmen. Angering radical Republicans in the House and the Senate with his obstructionist policies, Johnson survived impeachment by a lone vote. Johnson is regarded as one of the worst presidents in the country's history.
In March 1869, General Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated as the eighteenth president. According to Kenneth Bowling, Grant was the first president to envision Washington, D.C., as a source of national pride, to both the former states of the Union and the former states of the Confederacy, some of which had still not been readmitted by the time of Grant's inauguration. In Grant's annual message of 1871, he said, "Under the direction of the territorial officers, a system of improvements has been inaugurated, by means of which Washington is rapidly becoming a city worthy of the nation's capital." With Grant's interest in the city and appropriations made toward its public works, the Republican Party took a keen interest in the city "so that the city physically, constitutionally, and symbolically reflected the supremacy of the federal government over the states."
Over the next few years, Douglass would be drawn frequently to D.C. by the pull of politics, business and family. By Grant's second administration, Douglass had made Washington his permanent residence.CHAPTER 2
Honorable Frederick Douglass
These people are outside of the United States. They occupy neutral ground and have no political existence. They neither voice nor vote in all the practical politics of the United States. They are hardly to be called citizens of the United States. Practically they are aliens; not citizens, but subjects.
— Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Whether arriving by foot, horseback, carriage or streetcar, attendees could see the radiant glow for blocks in all four directions. In one blaze of light, hundreds of Chinese lanterns lined Four-and-a-half Street from Pennsylvania Avenue to city hall, where three large grandstands had been erected. The porticos were draped in patriotic bunting. Hours before the meeting's start, the vacant space in front of city hall swelled with people from all walks of life. As representatives and club members from every district began to emerge, they were greeted by applause and a brass band. The rally of the Republican Party to ratify the nomination of General Norton Parker Chipman as candidate for the District of Columbia's non- voting delegate to Congress on the evening of April 12, 1871, was, according to the Evening Star, "the most imposing political demonstration ever witnessed in this city."
Speculation on possible candidates for the Republican nomination had included Frederick Douglass, former mayor Sayles Bowen, former city tax collector John F. Cook, a retired judge of the Orphan's Court and others. There was also chatter about Richard Wallach, Washington's mayor during the Civil War. The Democratic candidate was Richard T. Merrick, a former Maryland state legislator whose father had represented Maryland in the United States Senate. Merrick had become a prominent lawyer in Washington during the Civil War and was widely known for providing counsel to John Suratt during his 1867 trial on conspiracy charges to assassinate President Lincoln.
To nominate their candidate, prominent city Republicans gathered in the early afternoon of March 29, 1871, at Lincoln Hall, on the corner of Ninth and D Streets Northwest. Surprisingly, Frederick Douglass, editor and publisher of the New National Era and recently returned to Washington from the Caribbean island city of Santo Domingo, emerged as a nominee. In his way was Brigadier General Norton Parker Chipman, who had gained Northern celebrity and Southern infamy for leading the successful prosecution of Henry Wirz. Wirz was the Confederate officer in charge of Camp Sumter, the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, South Carolina, where an estimated ten thousand Union soldiers died of disease and starvation.
With the first ballot tabulated, Douglass was just over a dozen votes behind Chipman. A second ballot was voted on, and the final tally stood at Chipman, sixty-six, Douglass, thirty-seven. Frederick Douglass Jr. of the First Ward did not vote. His older brother Lewis, John F. Cook, Dr. Charles B. Purvis and Nehemiah G. Ordway, the sergeant-at-arms of the House, did, casting their ballots for Frederick Sr. Prominent black Washingtonian Perry Carson went for Chipman. After the results were certified, an announcement was read that it was "unanimously agreed that President Grant be requested to appoint Frederick Douglass to the position of Secretary of the District, which will be vacated by the election of General Chipman to Congress," reported Douglass's paper, the New National Era.
Years later, rumors were spread that the Board of Public Works had manipulated the vote of the nominating convention to select Chipman. "To sooth Douglass at the time he was promised," the Baltimore Sun reported, "that he would be appointed Secretary of the District, and in carrying out their promises the board of public works had him appointed a member of the district council."
After the second nominating tally, the attention now turned to Douglass, and he was asked to speak. His remarks strictly political in nature, Douglass said that the only way the Republican Party could crystallize views into law, organize the statute and enact it to become the rule of life and of the republic was "through a party that is able to elect its candidates." The crowd applauded. Douglass said, "Any man can have a little party. I can have a little party; you have can have a little party, but it will be inefficient and impracticable. But what we want is a true party." Douglass was interrupted by the sounds of agreement from the audience. He concluded his remarks by asking all those who voted for him to pledge their support on election day for Chipman, who spoke next.
Uncertainties were thick in the air "in this initial effort to launch our new government into the great sisterhood of States and Territories," but Chipman believed that "when I see here the mechanic and the merchant, the artisan and the lawyer, the laborer and the physician, the poor, the rich, all assembled with one mind," victory was assured. Chipman denounced the stark contrast between the nominating conventions for the Republicans and Democrats. The Democrats had "excluded, by its proscriptive declarations, by the very essence of its constitution, at least one-quarter of the entire population of the District." He asked, "Is that democracy which deliberately erects an impassable barrier against a large and respectable class of our citizens whose only offence is the color of their complexion?" Answering his own rhetorical question to the crowd's delight, Chipman proclaimed, "No! It is oligarchy!" In reference to his competitor for the nomination, Chipman remarked, "In my mind it is marvelous that a party, having the intelligence claimed for Democrats should have the audacity to attempt the proscription of such men as Frederick Douglass."
Two weeks later, a well-lit evening rally was held at city hall to unify the citywide Republican ticket from top to bottom. After the slate of officers from all twenty-two city districts was confirmed, local and national figures took to the podium. Alexander Shepherd served as the event's master of ceremonies. Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson remembered, "Ten years ago tonight we in this city were enduring the most intense anxiety, and the rebels were lighting their matches to burn and destroy the old flag, disrupt the Union, and to lay waste this fair land." But it was a new day, Wilson said. Unified Republican victory "would place the capital of this great nation, a city of which we are so proud, among the standard Republican cities of the Union."
Introduced by Shepherd as a "true friend of the District" who had "labored long and earnestly for the redemption and advancement of the colored race, of which he was probably the ablest exponent," Frederick Douglass was next to lead the rally. Greeted with prolonged cheers, he took to the speaker's platform as though it were a Shakespearean stage. "It is literally with you and I and all of us of this color 'to be or not to be.'" He argued that both the country and his newly adopted city were "standing at a pivotal period" in history. "It is whether we shall be permitted to enjoy the liberties which have been won for by the loyal blood of the white man as well as the black, whether we shall enjoy our own rights, or whether we shall be deprived of those liberties, proscribed and reduced to our former wretched state."
Stumping for Chipman, Douglass shared, "I think him to be a loyal man, whose public history is identified with the preservation of the American Union and the triumph of the great Republican experiment of liberty to the nation." Chipman's opponent, Merrick, was well known "since coming into this District" as being a gentleman, firm friend and a good husband. However, Douglass advanced, "I have never heard that when this great nation was about to rent asunder, when hostile armies were endeavoring to break up the Union and our brave boys rallied to preserve it. I have never heard that Richard T. Merrick was on the side of the Union"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C."
Copyright © 2012 John Muller.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword, by Frank Faragasso, PhD 11
Foreword, by Ka'mal McClarin, PhD 15
Foreword, by Clifford L. Muse Jr., PhD 19
1 Mr. Douglass Goes to Washington 29
2 Honorable Frederick Douglass 37
3 Frederick Douglass, Editor of the New National Era 47
4 Marshal Douglass 63
5 Old Uniontown 89
6 Howard University and Frederick Douglass, Esquire 111
7 Frederick Douglass's Wives: Anna Murray Douglass and Helen Pitts Douglass 129
8 Grand Pa Douglass 153
9 Twilight 159
Selected Bibliography 177
About the Author 189
About the Photographer 191