Fourth Day, Wednesday, March 23rd
I arrived yesterday afternoon in New York City and had a good hangout with my friend with whom I’m staying (thanks, Devin!).
After doing more research and mapping out today’s journey, I head to my first destination. I take the subway to lower Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge stop, zigzag my way southeast to Wall and William Streets, then down to S. William St. Wall Street was the northern border of the city when it was still young, so I decide it’s as good a way as any to get a feel for the old city, though really, the truly old intact buildings in NYC are scattered, and few. I’m only looking back to the 1830’s for this trip, but as you may know or may remember from my earlier series on Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, this city has a long history of tearing everything down regularly and starting fresh.
I’m heading to S. William because, as you may remember from my account of yesterday’s travels, Douglass accidentally referred to the Willow St. depot in Philadelphia as the William St. depot, which was the New York one. It doesn’t say specifically in any of his accounts that he went to the William St depot the day he arrived in New York City on Monday, September 4th, 1838. He would have arrived at a New York City wharf coming across from a New Jersey train station. I interpret his mistake, though, to indicate he did go to William St. that day, especially combined with his description of being among the bustle of Broadway and gradually making his way north to Center Street. The general route makes sense.
I photograph a row of older buildings at the foot of William St. As you can see by the numbers near the peaks of the facades, they’re dated at the turn of the century, more than half a century after Douglass arrived here, newly freed by his own efforts.
As I draw near to the buildings to take a closer look, I spot a historical plaque on 13 S. William St, the one with the year 1903 prominently displayed near the pointy top. That’s the year it was rebuilt after a fire in a more fashionable Dutch Revival style; the original building was under construction when Douglass was here in NYC in 1838, and the foundations remain. The buildings’ other entrance is on Stone St, to the east and parallel to S. William St as it curves around and up in a northeasterly direction. I see from early New York City atlases that the streets here retain their shape and direction from Douglass’ days here. So even if Douglass didn’t come to the William St. depot when he arrived, he was near this part of town, this is one of the few places where anything still stands from that time, and he probably went there at some point since his memory was familiar enough with the name of the William Street depot to transfer it to the Philadelphia one when he tried to recall it later on.
So back to following Douglass, and in this case to a place he went for certain. I make my way north, just as he did on his way ever more surely to freedom, to Centre St. across from the site of The Tombs. It stood at the site where Collect Pond now stretches between Lafayette and Centre Streets, at cross streets White and Leonard. It was an Egyptian revival building (hence the name, as in ancient Egyptian tombs) repurposed as a prison because it was ill-suited for its original purpose. In his Life and Times, Douglass recalls meeting a sailor named Stuart who saw him across the street from where his house stood on the west side of that street. Stuart takes an interest in him and befriends him right away. I’m sure it had much to do with Douglass’ appearance, since he dressed as a sailor himself for his escape: sailors were held in especially high regard in this part of the world at this time, so he felt he was less likely to be challenged, and since many black people were employed as sailors, he felt he’d more likely pass without notice.
Douglass’s new friend Stuart gave him shelter for the night. Since Stuart lived across from The Tombs on Centre St., his house would have stood somewhere on the grounds now occupied by the enormous New York City Criminal Court Building.
Looking up at the words engraved across the center front, something strikes me. I imagine what Douglass would have felt that day if he knew the words ‘Equal and Exact Justice to All Men of Whatever State or Persuasion’ would be etched in stone one day above the place his head lay. After all, it describes very well the central driving principle of his life. (As you can see if you look closely at the name under the quote, this one’s from Jefferson; it’s from his first inaugural address. Regretfully, the author of it never did find sufficient conviction within himself to realize that principle for those of Douglass’ people he held in slavery.)
The next morning, Stuart the hospitable sailor accompanied him to David Ruggles’ house. Ruggles was a free black man and an officer on the Underground Railroad, and he had sent for Douglass, inviting him to stay at his place for the next few days at the corner of Church and Lispenard Streets. So that’s where I head next, and it’s in what’s now the TriBeCa neighborhood, just below Canal a little west of Broadway. While Douglass hid out here, he sent for his sweetheart Anna, who had done so much already to help him escape by providing him with his sailor disguise and selling one of her feather beds for travel funds. In fact, she had likely met him on one of the docks at Fell’s Point, where my Douglass travels began. When she heard of his successful escape, she came from Baltimore immediately to join him when she heard of his successful escape. They were married here at the Ruggles house on Sept 15, 1838.
I continue north on Broadway, walking briskly since it’s fairly far, 11 long blocks north and four moderate-sized blocks east. But it’s a beautiful warm day outside and I can’t bring myself to go down in the subway. I’m heading for the Cooper Union foundation building at the southeast corner of the intersection of Astor Place and Cooper Square, a few blocks east of Washington Square and a couple blocks north. It’s a brownstone affair with arched windows built in the mid-1850’s. Cooper’s Union is a school founded on the idea that all people of talent and drive should receive a free, high-quality education whether or not they or their families can afford to pay, and its founder put an enormous fortune where his mouth was.
This building has had about as many great speaker’s voices echoing down its halls as you could wish for, including Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. In November of 1861, when the building was still fairly new, our hero and their mutual friend traveled to New York City. Six days after delivering a speech for the Emancipation League Speech in Boston, he delivered it again here. Douglass called forcefully once again for the immediate emancipation of all slaves and for the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union Army, which would not be allowed until a little over a year later. Douglass felt it was all-important that black people should be at the forefront of the fight against slavery, which everyone knew, and still does if they’re being honest, was more about slavery than anything else. Not only would this prove to their fellow Americans that black people were as brave and able as anyone else, which most Americans both north and south had trouble believing, it would give soldiers the opportunity to improve their own fortunes by establishing them as heroes, and by instilling in them that sense of confidence and self-worth born of taking their own destinies finally and firmly into their own hands.
Douglass returned to Cooper’s Union to speak more than once. On one occasion on May 30th 1865, Douglass delivered a speech not only memorializing his sometimes target of criticism, sometimes friend, and recently martyred hero Abraham Lincoln, he also denounced the New York Common Council for not allowing black people to participate in Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City. This town, though in a free state, was not yet a warm and welcoming place for black people. Not only did the very real danger of slavecatchers here convince him to move to New Bedford soon after his arrival in September 1838, on one occasion years later in 1850 he was beaten up by several white men just for walking down the street with two white lady friends of his on his arms. New York City was not, at the time, a place of human rights idealism so much as a place of commerce, and forced free labor can be good for business, or so it was often thought.
As you can see from the ever-increasing contrast in the photos as the sun makes it way west and downward, I’m running low on daylight, so I take the subway to my next destination. According to The New York Sun of January 26 1897, Page 3, Apollo Hall was at 495 Ninth Avenue, which is now between 37th and 38th. I can’t be sure that this is the right place, since at this point, I have not found an atlas confirming the location. I just have the street address number, which as we know, can change sometimes, and many results came up for ‘Apollo Hall New York’ keyword search, such as a playhouse which temporarily had Apollo in its name and a Brooklyn one described in The Weekly Democratic Statesman of May 13, 1875, p 4 as being on Fifth St in Brooklyn, a Union Tabernacle house of worship. But the hall named in the New York Sun article seems to be more of a forum for meetings such as the ones Douglass spoke at, and my sources refer to its being held in NYC, not Brooklyn. So, until I discover otherwise (and I’ll let you know if I do, dear readers!), I’ll assume this is the general location. There are no markers that I can find.
On April 9th 1870, ten days after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, the American Anti-Slavery Society met here for the last time. In his speech, Douglass said that the best and really the only way to thank God for the victory over slavery and the newly won right to vote (the 15th Amendment was ratified just that February) was by thanking the men and women who made it happen, because only through them was the will of God apparent. He was sometimes criticized in editorials and in the pulpit, especially by other black ministers, for not prioritizing God in his writing, in his speeches, and his public statements of gratitude. Douglass would have none of it, saying that as long as people did nothing about the injustice and evil done in the world, it was never done at all; the insistence on prioritizing the role of God in the good that’s accomplished can lull people into thinking that, as we sometimes put it today, it’s okay to just hang back and ‘let go, and let God’. Douglass didn’t think his work or that of his fellow activists here was done with the passage of the 15th amendment. He called for a new campaign for women’s suffrage, and he said that the mission didn’t end, only changed, to improve the lot of all suffering people, including Indians, women, and all oppressed minorities
In another landmark moment at Apollo Hall, delegates nominated Douglass as a candidate for Vice President on May 11, 1872.
Here’s the story if you’re interested in getting a little deeper into the historical details (skip this and the next long paragraph if you’re short on time): These delegates were meeting here to organize a new Equal Rights Party out of disappointment and frustration with the Republican’s increasing lack of commitment to progressive values. The Republican Party, Douglass’ party, was starting to fissure over corruption in President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, the debate over Radical Reconstruction (the policy of guaranteeing full equal political rights to black people and punishing Confederate leaders for waging war against their country), and the party’s increasing tendency to favor corporate and individual business interests over the rights of oppressed persons, especially black people and women. The Equal Rights Party was formed in opposition to the Liberal Republicans as well. Both criticized Grant for doing little to solve the corruption problem as well as for allowing Douglass to be excluded from an important White House meeting of one of the very commissions Grant had appointed him to, as well as Grant’s refusal to chastise the caption of the mail packet, on the return of the commission to DC, who excluded Douglass from the dining room. The ERP and the LR’s believed these discriminatory actions of Grant showed he was not truly committed to the cause of furthering the cause of black cause. But the ERP opposed the LR’s policy of cooperating with southern states-rights contingent who wanted to forgive ex-Confederates and rebuild the south economically, even if it meant sacrificing black civil rights issues.
The newly formed ERP nominated women’s and labor rights activist Victoria Claflin Woodhull for President of the United States and Frederick Douglass for Vice President, a progressive ticket if there ever was one. Douglass didn’t accept, since he believed it imperative that the black vote remained united behind the only party that had, and could still, actually accomplish good things for black people even if some time and compromise were required. (Here he shows his pragmatist side.) He dismissed the White House commission dinner slight as an oversight, and pointed out that the LR’s and Democrat’s state-rights policies protected the Klu Klux Klan’s terrorism in the South. Grant won the election that fall by a landslide, and Douglass was appointed one of the two electors-at-large for New York State; he and his fellow elector, friend, and mentor Gerit Smith conveyed the results of the New York ballot to the Senate. But Douglass was to find himself ever more disappointed in the Republican Party’s lackluster performance in ensuring that black people actually enjoyed the rights guaranteed to them by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
So north I press on, again by subway, all the way to Harlem. I really like this neighborhood. I head to 230 West 135th St, between Frederick Douglass Blvd (appropriately enough; it was formerly 8th Ave) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd (formerly 7th). I’m in luck: according to an old city atlas from the late 1800’s I’m so glad to find digitized and offered online, the street numbers don’t appear to have changed: the placement of number 230 matches the distance between 7th and 8th Avenues as it’s marked on my map. So exciting: it’s very rare for me to find that address numbers have not changed. Number 230 is now a small suite of law offices, one in a row of red-colored brownstone and brick fronts, with an updated pale pea-soup green facade complete with modern square windows and an awning. The one to the right of it, though, is clearly unchanged, and would certainly have looked identical.
In late 1892, Douglass came here to New York City to visit the marvelous Ida B.Wells, whose investigative journalism into lynching of black people inspired and informed his later speeches and activism. He almost certainly came to visit her in these offices. She moved to New York City in late 1892 for a short time before settling in Chicago, and in that time became a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, a very influential black newspaper which thrived for decades. Again, I’m in luck: there’s an earlier edition digitized and published online which gives the address of its offices. The New York Age and Wells’ powerful pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases were printed here.
Lynching was not, for a long time, a central issue for Douglass nor for many fellow abolitionists. It seemed that many took it for granted that it really was crimes committed by those lynched that sparked vigilante justice. And besides, the fight for political rights was central and took enormous energy and dedication, with seeming little to spare for extralegal extremist activity. However, when Wells’ own friends were lynched because of hysteria whipped up by a rival business owner who didn’t like the competition, Wells was galvanized. She saw, firsthand, how lynching was a terroristic weapon to keep black people subjugated through fear. All you had to do was cry ‘rape’, especially by a black man against a white woman, and you could torture and kill whoever you thought was out of line or too insistent on having their rights or dignity respected. It worked all too well, and the achievements of the civil rights movement were surely significantly delayed by these tactics. After all, it’s hard to fight for and exercise your political rights when you have to keep your head down, avoiding the flame and the rope wielded by members of a touchy populace that hates you and thinks you’re less than fully human. Douglass came to realize that and took on this fight too.
So ends my New York City adventures, and I look forward to so many more as I keep on pressing north. My next story follows soon!
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!
Sources and Inspiration:
‘Anna Murray-Douglass‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999
Douglass, Frederick, ed. John R. McKivigan. The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Two: Autobiographical Writings, Volume 3: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 504.
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
‘Fifth Avenue Theatre‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
‘Frederick Douglass Chronology‘. From Frederick Douglass National Historic Site District of Columbia, National Park Service website
Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. (1884- – 1893). Manhattan, V. 11, Double Page Plate No. 248 [Map bounded by W. 140th St., Lenox Ave., W.. 135th St., 8th Ave.]
McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Feb 14, 2007). ‘New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Unveils Plaque at Site of One of the Nation’s Most Important Stations Along the Underground Railroad‘ [Press Release]
The New York Age: The National Negro Weekly. 26th September 1925, Page Four.
New-York Tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 26 Jan. 1896. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Rutherford, Karen. ‘Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘. Jan 2004. From The Mississippi Writers Page, MWP.OleMiss.edu/
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.’ Originally published in The New York Age, June 25, 1892. From Project Gutenberg