Portrait of Frederick Douglass by unknown artist, 1844, National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.. The NPG placard describes it as a ‘powerful portrait’ but I’m not particularly impressed, especially since I don’t think it looks like Douglass at all.
Fourteenth Day, Saturday, April 2nd
After a morning glancing at the light rainfall through the coffee shop window as I write up some notes and look up some things in preparation for the day, I begin my day’s explorations with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s at 8th and F Streets NW, its official address: unusually, it lacks a street number.
While I’m here primarily to see all the Douglass portraits I can find and have little time to spare since it’s my last day in D.C., I’ve wanted to visit the Portrait Gallery for a long time, and allow myself an extra hour to explore.
After I’ve made my inquiries at the information desk, one of the first portraits that grab my attention as I head towards my first destination is a bust of Louisa May Alcott. As you may remember from my Boston account, she was the only one willing to sit next to Douglass and his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass at Wendell Phillips’ funeral in 1884, just about a month after their marriage. You see, Helen was white, and even for that gathering of committed abolitionists, this interracial marriage was going more than a bit farther than their still rudimentary sense of human equality would allow.
The bust is an excellent likeness of Alcott, unlike the portrait of Douglass I’m seeking. It was painted in 1844 by an unknown artist. When I find it, unfortunately, I’m not impressed: it’s a nice enough painting if it portrayed just any man, but the figure I see here looks nothing like Douglass. Douglass was the son of a black mother and a white father, and his features reflected his mixed ancestry. But African ancestry is not nearly as discernible in the face in this portrait as it was in Douglass’: it just looks a little more tan, and with curlier hair, than the average white guy. Perhaps the portrait painter was not very used to, or comfortable with, portraying people other than those of European descent. Or, perhaps he wanted to emphasize Douglass’ European ancestry for other reasons. I’m very glad Douglass was an ardent fan of photography and commissioned so many portraits of himself in that medium. The camera presents an unbiased view so long as the light is good.
Left, bust of Louisa May Alcott, sculpted by Frank Edwin Elwell, 1891. Right, Abraham Lincoln a month before his second inauguration, portrait by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
I find a couple more portraits of Douglass, one an original photograph from 1876, and the other an 1845 lithograph of the sheet music cover reproduced in the Lynn Historical Society and Museum, which I featured at the beginning of my Lynn account. I go on to see many more portraits I’m excited about, but I won’t include them here for time’s sake since they’re not really relevant to Douglass’ story, except for the photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln I find in the presidential portrait gallery. It was taken just a little more than two months before he was assassinated. Though photos of Douglass’ sometimes friend Lincoln often show him looking careworn and even rather disheveled during the course of the war, here, his hair is in place even if characteristically casually swept back and to the side, and his half-smile in the softly glowing light makes him look relaxed, even a bit day-dreamy.
Then I head to the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, just across First Street from the Capitol Building. For one thing, it’s my favorite place to be inside in Washington D.C., so even if I didn’t have some last-minute Douglass research to do, I would still swing by. As it turns out, however, it has an indirect yet significant relation to Douglass’ life. More specifically, to the last day of his life. As I mention in yesterday’s account, Douglass and his wife Helen were driven to the Congressional Library (better known today as the Library of Congress), where he was dropped off prior to attending the National Council of Women’s meeting, which started at ten a.m. and went until the afternoon. But the Library of Congress was not yet located in the grand Jefferson Building which was still under construction just across the street from the Capitol. It wouldn’t move in for two more years, in 1897. But Douglass would have seen the new Library it when it was well on its way to completion, and he would surely have appreciated its already obvious splendor.
The main reading room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. How I love to read in this beautiful place!
I do some research here in the beautiful main Reading Room for a couple of hours, especially in John Muller’s excellent book Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. I make some great last-minute discoveries, including a site I thought was at a different location. I look at the clock and realize that I’ll have to hustle for the rest of the day to get everywhere I plan to go before meeting my kind hosts back in Baltimore for dinner.
In heading to my nest destination, I pass the Capitol Building again. The Women’s Council meeting that Douglass headed to from the Congressional Library in the Capitol Building was at Menzarott Hall, just a fifteen or twenty minute’s walk away; I discussed that site and that meeting in yesterday’s account. And as discussed in my story of visiting Cedar Hill, Douglass was quite the walker (as I am), and he regularly walked to and from his hilltop home in Anacostia and his D.C. office for work, ten miles round trip. When I walked from the National Portrait Gallery to the Jefferson Building earlier today, and again as I head now to my next destination, I retrace some of yesterday’s route from the Freedman’s Bank Building to the Menzarott Hall site (now covered by the J. Edgar Hoover building) to the Capitol Building. In doing so, I also trace routes Douglass would have walked, including that of the day of his death.
D.C. Court of Appeals, formerly City Hall, Washington, D.C.
Lincoln’s statue in front of D.C’s Court of Appeals, formerly City Hall
The grand edifice I find at 451 Indiana Avenue NW was once Old City Hall, where Douglass’ office used to be. It looks very much the same now as it did in Douglass’ time except now the grounds are landscaped and the street in front is paved. In 1877, Douglass was appointed U.S. Marshal of Washington, D.C. by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and he remained in that position until he resigned at the express wish of the newly elected President James Garfield in 1881. Garfield wanted to place a personal friend in that post, and as a sort of consolation prize, he arranged that Douglass be appointed Recorder of Deeds for Washington, D.C. in 1881. It seemed rather a poor prize since it was a much less prestigious post, but Douglass described the job itself as ‘more congenial to [his] feelings’ (Autobiographies 944) than the job as Marshal, where he had to deal with criminals and the courts. Douglass’ government appointments freed him from the necessity of going out on the lecture circuit for a living, and he used them to improve the lives of his fellow black citizens in other ways, such as helping them to obtain government jobs. Best of all, he was again free to speak and write as he wished, without the constraints placed on a federal officeholder, and he held this post for almost five years.
Frederick Douglass as U.S. Recorder of Deeds, Library of Congress image on a sign across from the D.C. Court of Appeals building where City Hall and Douglass’ offices used to be
When Douglass was a young man, he used to say he wanted to become a senator, but over time, as he spent more time in Washington observing the grind of campaigning and favor-seeking required for running for political office, and the rampant backbiting and smear campaigns, he found he had no desire to go through all that. He himself was the victim of political backbiting, including rumors that he had grown enormously rich at public expense. (Which, by the way, was false.) Yet he always remained keenly interested in politics and called on his fellow black Americans to join him in involving themselves as deeply in the political process as they could. He stumped for many political candidates over his long career, from radical abolitionist Gerrit Smith to centrist Abraham Lincoln.
400 block of 11th St just north of Philadelphia Ave, the former site of the New National Era offices in Washington, D.C.
I’m finding that the time is simply flying by and I start to fear I’ll run out of it. So from now on, I’ll have to drive everywhere instead of walk, since what I have left to see is spread out and I have to travel a large area very quickly. I hate exploring a city by car: you have to pass by things too fast, you can’t stop, approach, and see details at will, and worst of all, you remove yourself from the crowd. I love people watching, catching bits of conversation, observing the ways they ornament and carry themselves, and stopping for a chat whenever the occasions arise.
Anyway, I head east to 11th St NW a little north of Pennsylvania Ave, the former site of The New National Era newspaper offices. They were then on the 400 block of 11th street on ‘Newspaper Row’, and the original address was 418 11th St, in the Star Annex building. Douglass was a corresponding editor when he helped launch The New Era in January of 1870, while his home was still in Rochester. The office used to be about where the sandy-gray building with the arched windows now stands (see the photograph above), or perhaps as far over as the 11th St. entrance to the 1111 Pennsylvania Ave parking garage, which is the large gated driveway with the large gray beam over its windows.
New National Era, Sept 8 1870, the first edition after Douglass took over as chief editor
The venerable black abolitionist paper The New Era was only about a year old when it suffered an arson attack in 1848, and though the fire nearly destroyed the offices, the paper continued until 1860. The first edition of The New Era which Douglass helped found was published on January 13th, 1870, carrying on the mission of its predecessor: social justice journalism. It was spearheaded at the beginning by editor J. Sella Martin, a fellow escaped slave and abolitionist minister. Douglass’ enthusiasm as he helped launch the project was accompanied by as much trepidation; as he wrote in his Life and Times ‘…Sixteen years’ experience as editor and publisher of my own paper, and the knowledge of the toil and anxiety… caused me much reluctance and hesitation…’ (Autobiographies 836). Just a few months later, there was (likely) an arson attempt on their offices too. Douglass must have been sickened at how often he encountered arson as a tool for the oppression of himself and his people. But the offices remained intact and The New Era continued. When Douglass took over as primary editor in September of that first year, he renamed it The New National Era. He also put a lot of his own money into the venture, losing about nine to ten thousand dollars all told. His two sons Lewis and Charles worked on the paper and eventually took over its operation; they had begun their training in the newspaper trade as young boys working with their father at The North Star‘s press in Rochester. The New National Era continued until early 1974 when Douglass’ sons were forced to shut it down due to its continued financial woes.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall at Howard University, gated entrance facing onto 6th St NW, Washington, D.C.
Next, I zigzag my way north about 2 1/2 miles to Howard University, at 2400 Sixth St NW. My destination is Douglass Hall, which faces onto Sixth St. It’s between Childers Hall (which adjoins the south end of Cramton Auditorium) and the Carnegie Building, between Howard Lane and Fairmont on the east side of the street. I find out before too long that, as a non-student there, I’m actually not supposed to be on the grounds without having received permission beforehand from the university. When I explain my project to the the security guard, he seems more assured that I’m not just wandering around nosily with no good purpose, but it’s still clear it’s time for me to go. Fortunately, I’ve already found the hall and taken my photos, and he gives no indication that I’m not allowed to take any or to share them. So if you’d like to visit, just remember to call up the university first, regardless of the fact that the D.C. travel guides I’ve seen don’t tell you this.
At its founding in 1867, the historically black university was off to a financially healthy start, with generous funding from the Freedman’s Bureau to augment other government funding, private donations, and tuition. Despite some rocky times here and there over the years, Howard remains an extremely successful endeavor. It’s now, as it’s always been, open to the admission of people of all races, but it still, just as in Douglass’ time, functions as a primarily black institution. Its founder, trustee, and President General Oliver Otis Howard was also the Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau. Howard was a Civil War hero, having lost an arm in the war, who believed strongly in civil rights for black people and was an ardent Christian. He and some other like-minded social reformers initially founded it as a school to train black ministers, but while it still offers degrees in divinity and religious studies, it very quickly and broadly expanded its educational mission. It now includes medicine, philosophy, biochemistry and genetics, fine arts, physics and astronomy, and social work among its diverse fields of study, and is a thriving research center as well. In sum, it’s an institution that Douglass must have heartily approved of.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall’s east facade facing the Upper Quadrangle in the soft light of early evening
Yet…. Though Douglass was elected to the board of trustee on July 13th, 1871 and remained a member until his death, he didn’t mention his association with this important institution, so near his final home, in his last autobiography Life and Times. This seems somewhat strange. He was very active in the University’s affairs throughout his years as a member, from fundraising to personally donating to voting at board meetings to chairing commissions to writing about it in the newspaper and more, Douglass was so actively involved and admired by the university that he was granted an honorary doctorate. Why he chose not to mention Howard University in his Life and Times remains, it seems, rather inexplicable.
Charlotte Grimké House sandwiched between two apartment buildings, Washington DC
I head south on Georgia Ave then turn right (west) on R St, and arrive at my next destination just past 16th. 1608 R St NW was the home of Charlotte and Francis Grimké. Douglass and his second wife Helen Pitts were married here in the parlor on Jan. 24, 1884. A few days before the wedding, the Reverend Francis Grimké had stopped by Douglass’ office at City Hall because he happened to be passing by. Like Douglass, he and his wife Charlotte were of mixed African and European ancestry and were devoted, very active abolitionists. And Grimké, like Douglass, was an ordained minister, though Douglass had long since given up his role as a man of the cloth. Grimké was pastor of the large congregation of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Yesterday, on my way from the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church to the Freedman’s Bank Building, I passed by the place it used to stand, on the east side of 15th off McPherson Square, between I and K Streets. As Grimké tells it, Douglass was especially glad to see him because he had made up his mind visit Grimké soon. Since he had decided to go ahead and marry the white woman he had fallen in love with, Douglass thought the progressive, mixed-race, widely respected Grimké would be the perfect officiant. Grimké would also prove up to the challenge of handling the inevitable public controversy to follow with equanimity.
Charlotte Grimké House
While Grimké learned of Douglass’ plans sort of at the last minute, his own family was not so lucky. Douglass, for reasons still poorly understood, never told his children of his plans to remarry, let alone to a white woman. In fact, they only found out when a reporter stopped by Douglass’ Recorder of Deeds office at City Hall to follow up on his discovery of Douglass’ purchase of a marriage license that morning. His daughter Rosetta, who also worked at the office, was surprised and upset, and the rest of the family no less so when she returned home to Cedar Hill and shared the news. So when Douglass left home again that evening at six to go and wed Helen, none of them accompanied him. The newlyweds returned home again that evening for a wedding supper, and I can only imagine the very awkward tension of that meal.
Douglass’ children never really accepted the marriage, thinking it a betrayal of their mother and her race. Rosetta, evidently, felt this especially. And though Douglass and Helen were very happy in their marriage, the dynamics of family life at Cedar Hill were not always harmonious. The children’s disapproval of Helen’s perceived ‘replacement’ of Anna only added to the troubles of the household. For example, Rosetta was married to a man of dubious integrity who had trouble keeping a job and didn’t always operate within the law. Her husband Nathan Sprague even tried to extort a large sum of money from Douglass because, he claimed, his sister Helen Louisa had supposedly worked for him as a servant. In reality, Douglass had supported his sister as well as Rosetta and their children when Sprague was in jail and otherwise unemployed. Douglass’ children were accomplished in their own right and had many fine qualities, but they also, from time to time, leaned on him for financial support and relied on him to help care for their families. Some of Douglass’ friends thought that they relied on him perhaps a bit too much, and often tried to convince him to require his adult offspring to be more self-reliant, but this father hen found himself unable to hold back when his children asked him for help. Speaking for myself, given the degree to which he took such great pains to secure their happiness, I wish that his children found it in themselves to support this last great romance of his life just a little more.
Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass at Niagara Falls, image public domain via NPS
While Douglass’ children joined the wider world and much of Helen’s family in their disapproval of the marriage, his wife’s mother came to accept it, joined the Cedar Hill household in her later years, and spoke fondly of her son-in-law. His protégée and friend Ida Wells often came to visit them and was outspoken in her support; same goes for the Grimkés. While many abolitionists, black and white, characterized Douglass’ choice of a white wife as Rosetta did, as a replacement or rejection of his first wife’s blackness and lack of formal education, for Douglass it was no such thing. Though he and Anna found themselves at a distance at times because she could not share in so many of his intellectual interests, they were deeply connected in other ways: their shared past as black people struggling to survive in a slave state, her instrumental role in helping him attain his freedom, their struggles together as a young black family on the run from his master while trying to make a living in a racist society, and of course, raising their many children together. With Helen, Douglass was able to share those parts of his intellectual side that he hadn’t been able to share with Anna in the context of a romantic partnership, and Helen was willing and able to travel the world with him as well. His relationship with Helen was a rounding-out of his romantic life, not a replacement of his earlier one, in my view.
Frederick Douglass’ row houses at 2000–2004 17th Street, Washington, D.C.. He built the three to the left, from the blue one at the end to the left, now Hana Japanese Market, to the green one in the middle.
Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, public domain courtesy of the National Gallery of Art website
From here, I hurry to the last Douglass site of the trip, just a few blocks north of the Grimké house, on my way back to Baltimore. In 1875-1876, Douglass built three row houses at 2000–2004 17th Street NW, just north of U St. They’re the three southernmost houses in a five-house row. I don’t find any evidence that Douglass himself ever lived here since he and his family were living in the A Street house at that time. He did like to invest in real estate and his children would often live at the investment properties; these row houses present an example of this. Hana Japanese Market now occupies that was then number 2000 17th St; it’s now numbered 2004. His son Lewis lived in the one next to it, the yellow one, starting in 1877. This neighborhood was called Strivers’ Section for the successful African Americans who made their homes here. After all, for a black person to do well in D.C. and really anywhere in America, it took one hell of a lot of striving.
As you may remember from my earlier accounts, Lewis was a Civil War hero whose 54th regiment attacked Fort Wagner, the father of Joseph Douglass the great violinist, and direct ancestor of my honored podcast guest Ken Morris. He was an accomplished man in his own right, who had an honorable if short military career abbreviated by injury and ill health. He worked as a teacher and as a newspaperman who fought for black typesetters’ rights, worked closely with his father on The New National Era, and held many government posts. Lewis lived here at (then) 2002 17th St until he died in 1908.
This particular Douglass journey is now complete. But I’ll continue to follow his life and ideas throughout mine, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Douglass’ story is embedded deeply in my mind and heart as I’ve spent so many hours with him, peering through time and space in an effort to better understand and appreciate this fascinating, intelligent, and feeling man, with all his strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. I have lots of drafts and notes for more pieces about Douglass’ ideas on many topics, so I hope you’ll keep on the lookout for more about Douglass here at Ordinary Philosophy.
It seems that I should close the story of my journey following Frederick Douglass with an epic quote from the great man; there’s such a wealth to choose from! But I came across this visual treat that delighted me so much I’ve decided to close this account with it: a photo of Abraham Lincoln fist-bumping Martin Luther King Jr, as Douglass stands by, tall and dignified as ever amidst these shenanigans, next to Harriet Tubman. Well, actors portraying them, anyway. I wonder what the dignified Douglass would think of fist-bumping. Probably not much; it’s a little too casual a greeting for him, I think. But who knows? The fact that it was our first black President who made it a presidentially acceptable thing to do might have changed his mind.
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Frederick Douglass Michael Crutcher), Abraham Lincoln (Fritz Klein), Martin Luther King Jr (Jim Lucas), and Harriet Tubman (Kathryn Harris) as portrayed in ‘Emancipation and the Dream of Freedom: From Slavery to the White House’, Lincoln Home bicentennial celebration event, 2009 by Michael A. Roth for the National Park Service. Photo used by permission.
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Sources and Inspiration:
‘About New National Era. (Washington, D.C.) 1870-1874‘. Library of Congress: Chronicling America
Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plates 31, 14, and 22. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website
‘Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914)‘, from The National Women’s History Museum website
‘Death Of Fred Douglass: Obituary‘, February 21, 1895, The New York Times from On This Day, nytimes.com
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Bondage and my Freedom, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
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.
Douglass, Helen, 1838-1903, ed. In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass. Philadelphia: J.C. Yorston & Co, 1897
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
‘Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress‘, Library of Congress website http://www.loc.gov
‘Journey to Greatness: Character Lessons from the Past‘, from Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois website page of the National Park Service.
Logan, Rayford W. Howard University: the First Hundred Years, 1867-1967. New York University Press, 1969
McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Muller, John. ‘Arson attempt on the offices of Frederick Douglass’ The New Era? [Baltimore Sun, May 1871]’ , ‘Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]’, ‘Frederick Douglass, editor of The New National Era, explains newspaper’s name change [September 8, 1870]‘, and Howard Univeristy. Views of Fred. Douglass Upon the Proposed Changes in its Management [National Republican., June 24, 1875, p. 4.], In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog
Muller, John. Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.
Ott, Chris. ‘Grimké, Francis (1850–1937)‘ From BlackPast.org
Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1948.
‘Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass‘, National Gallery of Art website.
‘Strivers’ Section Historic District‘, from National Register of Historic Places hosted by the NPS
Turner, Cory. ‘Martin, John Sella (1832-1876)‘. BlackPast.org