Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Frederick Douglass--still on the move

Douglass Statue Prepares For Move to U.S. Capitol

Photo by lreed76
By DCist contributor John Muller
As United States Marshal of the District, Frederick Douglass took to walking from his home in Cedar Hill in Anacostia to his office in City Hall, just around the corner from where his seven-foot bronze likeness was first unveiled in the fall of 2008.

In another step towards the statue’s legislated move from the lobby of One Judiciary Square at 441 Fourth Street NW to Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol, political and community leaders and Douglassonians will convene next Monday evening, February 4 at 6:30 p.m., for a public pep rally in recognition of the Lion of Anacostia.

Before the statue made its public appearance, in 2008 the city submitted proposals to the U.S. Mint advocating Douglass and fellow Maryland native Benjamin Banneker grace the city’s thematic quarter. Exposing its own historical illiteracy, though, the city’s application needed some quick fact checking by high school teachers to amend that Douglass did not move to the nation’s capital to help abolish slavery. (A Douglass quarter is planned for 2017.)

“At the close of the war he moved to Washington and became deeply interested in the practical work of reconstruction,” wrote George Washington Williams, one of the nineteenth century’s foremost black historians, in 1883.

It is understandable that an often one-dimensional telling of Douglass as a runaway slave turned abolitionist is what holds the public’s consciousness. But Douglass lived nearly thirty years after the Civil War; twenty-five of which were spent partially or entirely in Washington.

During these years Douglass launched the last of his newspaper ventures, was appointed to the city’s Legislative Council, served on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, raised money for the city’s colored schools, advocated “District Suffrage,” buried his wife, his namesake, far too many grandchildren and scores of his old line allies; radical abolitionists, journalists, suffragists, educators, ministers, runaway slaves, diplomats and Presidents.

When Douglass settled in Washington in 1872, post-emancipation Washington was envisioned by radical Republican Congressmen and Senators as becoming a fully politically, and socially, integrated “Example for all the Land,” as Northwestern University Professor Kate Masur details in her award-winning 2010 book. Rights of enfranchisement and public accommodation for black folk were codified. With the arrival of the country’s first generation of black Civil Rights leaders, towering figures of their day, into the halls of Congress, Washington was the place to be for those on the make. One of the most prominent men of “New Washington” was Frederick Douglass.

Robert Smalls, a former slave, war hero and Congressman, recalled when meeting Douglass that as a child in Charleston, South Carolina Douglass’s 1845 autobiography was passed around among the slaves illegally.
This younger generation of black political leaders and social reformers, looking for guidance, turned to the elder Douglass who in turn shared his experiences, influence, money and blood, sweat and tears to improve the lot of not just the city’s black elite but also the orphans who ran the streets of late 19th century Washington.

For marrying Helen Pitts, the daughter of a white abolitionist, in 1884 against the wishes of both their families, Douglass upturned Washington society. His marriage was met with mixed emotions in the daily papers and divided the black press.

The Washington Grit, edited by black nationalist John Edward Bruce, let loose, “Barnum could make a mint of money out of this couple if they would consent to go on exhibition. We do not believe that it adds anything to the character or good sense of either of the two races to intermarry with each other, and when it is done it will generally be found that moral depravity is at the bottom of them.”

Representing black Washington’s more conservative temperament, the Washington Bee, known for its standard tag line “Honey for Friends, Stings for Enemies,” did not object to the interracial union. On February 2, 1884, the Bee’s tag line championed the protection of civil liberties, its editorial on Douglass and Helen Pitts saying as much. “If [Douglass] felt disposed to marry a white lady, it does not prove that he is opposed to the colored ladies of our city,” the Bee said, offering a rebuttal to black women who could not help feeling slighted. “Mr. Douglass will be different from other men who have white wives. He will not try to hide his identity with his race, but he will still be Frederick Douglass, the defender of civil and political liberty.”

In the parlors of Cedar Hill and on the back lawn literary readings hosting neighbors, students from Howard University, Washington poets and old friends from Rochester, New York were held with regularity.
Known to carry a pistol in her purse since witnessing the lynching of a close friend in Memphis in the late 1880s, Ida B. Wells was a frequent guest at the Douglass home in Anacostia. Unlike many black women of her time, and Douglass’s own children, Wells befriended Frederick as much as Helen. In Wells’s autobiography, compiled by her daughter, she writes, “The friendship and hospitality I enjoyed at the hands of these two great souls is among my treasured memories.”

The sweeping styles of Frederick Douglass, one of the 19th century’s most prominent Victorian men of letters, are various. From taking in a baseball game to horse playing with his grandchildren to stringing a song from his memories of the Wye House plantation in Maryland’s Talbot County, the time Douglass spent in Washington was a regeneration of the former adolescent slave who walked the streets of Baltimore in the 1830s picking up torn Bible pages scattered in the gutter. A fugitive slave for nearly a decade, hunted by United States Marshals in the immediate aftermath of John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1859, Douglass was no longer an outlaw when he and his family settled in post-emancipation Washington.
The full portraiture of Douglass, the most photographed man of the 19th century according to new research, is not complete without a full exposure, recognition, and discussion of his time in our city.

Throughout February (designated Black History Month because Dr. Carter G. Woodson sought a week in February to honor the birth months of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln), there are a handful of Douglass-related events at the D.C. Public Library and local bookstores and museums. On Saturday, February 2 and February 23, I am leading a tour ($30) of Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia, while seven days a week free public tours of the Douglass home are offered at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Historic Anacostia.

John Muller is the author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia.

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