Third day, Tuesday March 22nd
I head north, the direction of freedom for the American slave of the antebellum south. Spoiler alert: so did Frederick Douglass! To his and all of our great benefit, he took his life and whatever fortunes he could hope to enjoy in Maryland into his own hands, and made his risky bid for freedom in September 1838 at age 20.
Douglass was a particularly clever young man, and by this time, had educated himself to an impressive degree for anyone his age, let alone one who had to get his learning largely on the sly while working more than full time. He had honed his skills, become more resourceful, and gained a wider circle of friends, and he counted on all of these to make this attempt more successful than the first. He decided that his best bet was to disguise himself as a sailor. Sailors were highly respected in seafaring Maryland; his years in the shipyards gave him easy familiarity with the terms and style of speech; and he had a sailor friend willing to lend him his sailor’s certificate. But this still was quite a gamble: he didn’t really match the description on the paper, so he had to trust the conductor would treat him with the usual respect accorded to sailors and not look too closely.
So he headed to Philadelphia first, which would require taking the train to Havre de Grace to cross the Susquehanna River by ferry, then the train to Wilmington in slave Delaware, and then a steamboat to Philadelphia in free Pennsylvania and to some degree of safety. As you can see from the sign above (open the photo in a new tab to enlarge for ease of reading), this ferry service has a long and distinguished history.
I continue north to Philadelphia, and instead of heading straight to the depot where Douglass would have arrived here, I save that for later because it’s father north and I don’t want to backtrack. Instead, I make my way to the Old City, where 28 years after his escape, on September 3rd 1866, Douglass gives a speech and leads a protest march. By this time, he’s already had a long distinguished career as an abolitionist and human rights activist. We’ll find out more about how he got there as this series goes on.
Douglass was appointed a delegate by the Republican convention of Rochester to the National Loyalist Convention. The Civil War was over, Abraham Lincoln was gone, and his successor President Andrew Johnson was a huge disappointment to Douglass, to the Republican party, and to all those who wanted the United States to protect the rights of Americans not yet benefiting enough from the Union victory. Radical Reconstructionists and Southern Unionists found common cause with the more pragmatic Republican Party in their opposition to Johnson’s Southern appeasement and anti-equality agenda. So, they all sent delegates to the Convention at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to speak out against his policies.
When Douglass arrived at the Convention, he was further disappointed: many members were perturbed, even dismayed, at the arrival of a black delegate, and feared that allowing him to speak would undermine their chances of success in a North that was still rife with racial prejudice, even if they didn’t like slavery. But Douglass pointed out that if they didn’t allow him to participate fully, the Convention would appear hypocritical and cowardly, especially given that his attendance at the convention was already reported in the papers. So he made his speech unopposed.
It turns out that Douglass also gave a speech on the State House lawn many years earlier, in August 1844, which was also reported by local papers. As we can see, Douglass was right to warn the other delegates about bad publicity if he was shunned by the Convention, since his public appearances had been newsworthy items for years. News reports and reviews of the earlier speech are now hosted on the Independence Hall website, which the lady at Independence Hall welcome center kindly directed me to, and you can read them here.
Back to our 1866 story: Douglass marched in parade with the Convention down Chestnut to 12th St, to the site of National Hall on Market between Twelfth and Thirteenth. It’s no longer there, and there’s no plaque marking the site. But looking at the photo above, which looks north on Market across 12th, it stood about where the second glassy building back on the left side of the street does now, according to an 1862 city atlas. This was not Douglass’ first appearance at National Hall, either. From the beginning of his first role as an abolitionist speaker, Douglass traveled widely and made huge numbers of public appearances, so I don’t even try to follow him to most of those sites. I just to try to make it to the places where he made his most influential speeches, as many as I can given I only have two weeks for this trip.
As the Convention parade made its way, a young white woman named Amanda Sears came up to Douglass. She was Thomas Auld’s granddaughter, daughter of Lucretia Auld who had always treated Douglass kindly as a young slave and who became his owner for a short time after Aaron Anthony’s death. Sears had come to hear him speak and finally meet him in person since she had become a fan of his; their meeting created great sympathy in the crowd and generated favorable publicity for the march.
Next, I head to Mother Bethel A.M.E. church, the first black church in Philadelphia also recommended to me by the lady at the Independence Hall center. First, though, I have to return to my car from 12th and Market all the way back to Arch and 3rd where I’d started, to avoid getting a parking ticket.
On my way back, after checking to see if the African American Museum on Arch at 7th was open (it isn’t), I notice a historical marker for a Quaker meeting house built on land donated by William Penn a century or so earlier, and snap a picture. A tall handsome woman with gray hair notices and exclaims ‘Oh, you’re interested in the meeting house? I give tours there!’ I say yes, but in future: I’m making note of it for a history of ideas tour on Penn I’d like to take someday (stay tuned!). But at this moment, I’m still rushing to my car to avoid that parking ticket! We continue to chat, the lady and her companion hurrying with me in sympathy, and we exchange stories of our historical interests. When hearing I’m on a Douglass tour, her companion confirms that Douglass spoke on at least one occasion at Mother Bethel. That occasion was in April 1863, when Douglass was hard at work recruiting the first black soldiers into the Union Army. I’ll be covering the story of Douglass the recruiter more fully very soon in this series.
Then I head north, to the site of the depot where Douglass caught the train to New York City on Willow Street at 3rd St. on Sept 3rd, 1838. In earlier drafts of his autobiographies, Douglass referred to the Philadelphia train depot as the ‘William St. depot’, but the William St depot was in New York City, where he was headed. His editors corrected this to ‘Willow St’. There’s nothing here marking the site of the old train depot at the northwest corner of these cross streets, but that’s not too surprising: in those early years of train travel, depots were often hastily constructed or repurposed buildings, none of which lasted long enough to be considered memorable later on.
So ends this relatively short day of visiting Douglass sites: I’m headed for New York City to meet my friend with whom I’m staying, and where I’ll continue my explorations tomorrow. Stay tuned!
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Sources and Inspiration:
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 (p. 504)
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, 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, Frederick, ed. John R. McKivigan. The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Two: Autobiographical Writings, Volume 3: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 504.
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
‘Frederick Douglass‘, from Independence Hall in American Memory, companion website for book of the same name by Charlene Mires, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013
Lippincott, J. B. & Co. ‘Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 1862, Section 4‘. Published by Samuel L. Smedley
‘National Hall! Fred’k Douglass will lecture before the Alumni Association of the Institute for Colored Youths…‘, originally published by the Institute for Colored Youth, Philadelphia, PA., in 1863. From WorldCat.org: The World’s Largest Library Catalog
‘Philadelphia History: Early Railroad Transportation‘. from UShistory.org hosted and created by Independence Hall Association.
Stauffer, John and Benjamin Soskis. The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.