Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2

Frederick Douglass standing in front of his home at 320 A Street NE, Washington, DC, in 1876. Public domain via NPS

Frederick Douglass standing in front of his home at 320 A Street NE, Washington, DC, in 1876. Public domain via NPS

Thirteenth Day, Friday, April 1st, continued

I leave the approximate site of Helen Pitts-Douglass’ onetime home at 913 E St NE, and head southwest to 316-18 A Street NE.

In 1872, Douglass moved his family here to Washington, DC. Since his beloved farm home on the hill in Rochester had burned to the ground on June 2, 1872, probably by arson, Douglass was bitter and in the mood to shake the dust of that city from his feet. He had already been considering a permanent move to Washington since his work with the New National Era newspaper (more on that to come), his political work, and his efforts to obtain a good government appointment often took him there, sometimes for lengthy stays. In fact, he was in Washington when he received a telegram notifying him of the fire.

Frederick Douglass house at 316-320 A St, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass house at 316-318 A St and the museum dedicated to him next door, in Washington, D.C.

So Douglass brought his family here, and after a stay in rented rooms, the Douglass family moved into this pretty Queen Anne brick house, likely in late 1872. I haven’t yet found a more exact timeline for where the Douglasses lived and when during their first months in Washington: sources vary on this. The plaque I find here at the house, placed in 1966, says that Douglass lived here from 1871 to 1877, though many other sources say 1872 and 1878, respectively. Perhaps Douglass had purchased this already as a second or investment home in 1871. In any case, the Douglass family lived here for about six years until they moved across the Anacostia River to Cedar Hill in 1878, though Douglass retained ownership of this house. I find an entry in John Muller’s Lion of Anacostia blog showing that Douglass applied for a permit to build onto this property in 1879, and his son Charles was living here when he died in 1920.

The restored house and the adjacent building at 320 A St now make up The Frederick Douglass Museum and Caring Hall of Fame, which is available for tours by appointment.

AME Methodist Church at 1518 M St NW

The Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St NW, Washington D.C.

Then I head northwest across town, a cross-wise route via Massachusetts Ave to the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St NW. This historic church has many associations with Douglass, but I’ll focus on three main ones. In 1889, the Bethel Literary Society held a surprise 71st birthday celebration for Douglass here. Actually, the party would have been held at the church hall next door, since that’s where the Society met, where the ugly office building now stands to the right of the church. He was called upon to speak, and speak he did, of course, that was his specialty. The speech was written down by hand then typed; it’s at the Library of Congress today.

Douglass delivered another speech here five years later on January 9th, 1894. It was one of his greatest, called ‘The Lessons of the Hour’. In it, he speaks out against the lynching which had become rampant in the South. As you may remember from my New York account, Douglass was inspired by Ida B. Wells’ investigative journalism into the true nature and extent of lynching in the South, and had joined her in campaigning against it in 1892. Douglass blamed the accusations of rape used to excuse the lynchings as a new method of slandering black people and inciting white people to hate and fear them, since they could no longer use the excuse of a fear of slave uprising or black domination of white people through the vote. If it was true that black men were actually suddenly going around raping white women right and left, which mind you, hadn’t happened much in the South historically, why resort to mob violence instead of proving these cases in court? Because, Douglass charged, the lynchers and their apologists knew these accusations were lies. Metropolitan A.M.E. Church sign, Washington D.C. photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Photo of AME Metropolitan Church by Charles Frederick Douglass, 1900, via NPS website

Photo of AME Metropolitan Church by Charles Frederick Douglass, circa 1900, public domain via the National Park Service website.

One year later, Douglass’ funeral service was held here, on Feb 25th 1895, the first of two; the second was held in Rochester, where he was buried. This funeral was attended by huge numbers of mourners and dignitaries, including Susan B. Anthony and Justice John Marshall Harlan, the great Kentucky-born Supreme Court justice who had reversed his views on slavery to become a champion of civil rights. (A factoid of personal interest: Justice Harlan’s family home was in Harrodsburg, a town founded by an ancestor on my mother’s side; she’s a Harrod.) Justice Harlon famously dissented in the Court’s decisions in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which set back the cause of black rights for over half a century. Douglass, who believed in the perfectibility of humankind, would have welcomed Harlan’s moral evolution warmly, just as he welcomed Lincoln’s.

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

United States President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, 20 January 2013, by Peter Souza, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t enter the church because there’s a man standing outside clearly discouraging drop-in guests, as they appear to be setting up for an event; I have the impression it’s a funeral. I curb my curiosity with some effort, out of respect, though I really, really want to see the inside of this great historic place. President Bill Clinton’s inaugural prayer service was also held here, and Barack and Michelle Obama attended a service here on the occasion of Obama’s inauguration in 2013 as well. What excitement for Douglass, if he were there that day! Well, I’ll make it inside next time I’m in D.C., I hope.

US Treasury Annex renamed the Freedmen's Bank Building, 1503 Pennsylvania Ave

US Treasury Annex renamed the Freedmen’s Bank Building, 1503 Pennsylvania Ave

Freedmen's Bank building plaque, on entrance of the building facing onto Madison Pl.

Freedmen’s Bank building plaque, on entrance of the building facing onto Madison Pl.

I find I need to move my car, so I head down the way a bit and find a good parking spot and walk south towards the Mall, to 1503-1505 Pennsylvania Ave NW. My destination is the U.S. Treasury Annex building, a marble edifice with classical columns off the pedestrian-only section of Pennsylvania Ave where it joins the southeast corner of Lafayette Square. It stands across from the north end of the main U.S. Department of the Treasury building to the left (west) of the PNC and Bank of America building.

I’m here because the Annex building stands on the site of the original headquarters of the Freedman’s Bank, and has recently been renamed the Freedman’s Bank Building to commemorate that institution’s 150th anniversary. Though the bank was headquartered here in 1867, the first branch had opened over a year earlier in Baltimore, Maryland, the site of which, as you may remember, I sought in Baltimore on my way back from the East Shore of Maryland. The 1874 newspaper article I referenced lists the Baltimore location as a branch office of the main one in Washington, though it still likely predates the main office.

Freedman's Savings Bank Building, Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Freedman’s Savings Bank Building in 1890 not long before it was razed, at about 1503 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC. In his Life and Times, Douglass wrote of this handsome, exquisitely appointed building devoted to the well-being of his people, ‘The whole thing was beautiful’.

In March 1874, Douglass was named President of the Freedman’s Bank. It was a private bank chartered by the U.S. government with Lincoln’s support, with Congressional oversight. It was supposed to help freed slaves and their families gain economic independence as well. The Bank opened to widespread popular support and for many years did just what it set out to do, and Douglass was a passionate fan of the project, depositing $12,000 of his own money. However, over time, poor management and corruption left it heavily in debt and on the verge of collapse. Douglass was asked to take over the Bank in hopes that his reputation would buttress the Bank’s own. But Douglass found he just couldn’t save it. Not only did he lack expertise as a banker, he learned only after he accepted how deeply the Bank was in trouble. Even a personal loan of $10,000 could do little to contribute to the Bank’s solvency. From this experience, as Douglass told it, he learned a great deal about how corrupt the political system had become as well as the unfortunate selfishness and greed of too many people.

Douglass also learned that he was not particularly adept as a businessman in many ways. He well understood the importance of economic independence for achieving full political and social equality, and succeeded financially due to his hard work, his prudent investments in safer ventures such as real estate, and his prodigious array of skills in other areas. As he admitted, however, he lost a lot of money when he helped found the New National Era paper and could not save the Freedmen’s Bank because, in both ventures, he failed to look into and secure their financial underpinnings himself before putting his own money in. In both cases, he simply took other people’s word for it, for how the venture was doing or likely to do, and his advisors were not disinterested parties. So the New National Era and the Bank failed as his North Star had nearly done before Julia Griffith’s tenure there, through poor financial handling. In business matters at least, Douglass’ idealism tended to win out over his more pragmatic approach in other areas.

The White House, Washington D.C.

The White House, Washington D.C., looking across the South Lawn and President’s Park fountain

Next, I head south on 15th St, and turn right on the pedestrian walkway that E St becomes as it passes between President’s Park and the South Lawn of the White House, and the Ellipse.

Late in July of 1863, Douglass visited the White House for the first time when he requested, and was granted, an audience to address President Abraham Lincoln directly. His mission was to obtain better treatment of black soldiers. When they were first admitted to the Union Army, black soldiers received less pay and less and poorer quality equipment than their white compatriots. This, though they faced greater danger at the hands of hostile Southerners, especially if they were captured.

Lincoln told Douglass, regretfully, that he could not yet guarantee equal treatment of black soldiers given the strength of Northern opposition to enlisting black soldiers at all. He agreed, however, that Douglass’ demands were just and he would do as much as he could as the opportunities presented themselves, including signing off on Secretary of War’s commissions for black soldiers. Though he had often considered Lincoln a ‘vascillator’, not a consistent or even principled champion of black rights, Douglass left this audience with an impression of Lincoln as ‘an honest man’ and, personally, ‘entire[ly] free… from prejudice against colored people’. On the basis of this meeting, Douglass decided to resume recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army, which he had stopped for awhile in protest over their treatment. However, over time, he still found himself often frustrated at the slow pace of reform in the President’s administration, and his old doubts about Lincoln stayed with him, enough for him to join in an effort of Radical Republicans to replace Lincoln in the next election. Douglass met Lincoln a second time about August 25, 1864; Lincoln had asked to meet Douglass again since he heard Douglass was unhappy with his policies. As I described in my Chambersburg account, Lincoln and Douglass concocted a plan for the latter to lead efforts to help slaves flee north behind Union lines, a plan very like John Brown’s original one before Harper’s Ferry. Douglass agreed to this plan but it never materialized.

Douglass returned again to the White House many times. On March 4th, 1865, he attended the reception held here following Lincoln’s second inauguration. When Douglass tried to enter, he was stopped by two policemen who tried to trick him into leaving. He stood his ground and got word in to Lincoln, who ordered that Douglass be allowed in. When Douglass entered, Lincoln strode across the room, shook his hand, and loudly greeted him as ‘my friend Douglass’.

Andrew Johnson in 1860. Yes, I agree, he looked a lot like Tommy Lee Jones

Andrew Johnson in 1860. Yes, I agree, he looked a lot like Tommy Lee Jones

On February 7th, 1866, Douglass arrived here again with a delegation, which included his son Lewis, to meet President Andrew Johnson. They discussed and debated Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson protested that his South-friendly, anti-black-suffrage policies were designed to prevent race wars, while Douglass argued that since his policies perpetuated the same old hatreds and bigotries, they would result merely in prolonging the conflicts. The year before, on the Capitol steps just before he delivered his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pointed Douglass out in the crowd to then Vice President Johnson. Douglass noticed that Johnson looked at him with ‘bitter contempt and aversion’ when he didn’t know Douglass was looking. But when Douglass caught Johnson’s eye, his faced smoothed into a friendlier expression. Douglass would go on to write that he knew then that Johnson was not a sincere friend of the cause for black rights.

Douglass returned to the White House more than once in the mid-to-late 1880’s at the invitation of Grover Cleveland. But likely not to dinner, as some had said, despite what alcoholic-turned-prohibitionist preacher Sam Small wrote. Small was also quite the racist, and used the rumor to try and discredit Cleveland, writing ‘[he] invited that leader of niggerdom, Fred Douglass, to his dinner table. I might excuse him…, but when he invited the low wife to go there, it is more than I can stand’. (What a creep!) Douglass himself wrote in his Life and Times that he and Helen were invited to many receptions by the Clevelands but didn’t mention a dinner with them. Douglass expressed approval of Cleveland as a person, though they were divided over politics, because Cleveland treated the Douglasses with courtesy and respect despite Douglass’ efforts against him in the presidential race. Perhaps Douglass was more disposed to friendliness because of his disillusionment with the Republicans and their abandonment of the black rights cause at this time, and as always, he was very proud that he was now a man that presidents rub shoulders with. But I don’t find evidence that Cleveland did much of anything to show he cared about black rights either. In later years, he even took to protesting to the House of Representatives that he had never done such a thing as invite a black person to dinner at the White House. Douglass’ flattering picture of Cleveland, sadly, appears to show a weakness. Always a proud man, Douglass let his personal pride overcome his convictions somewhat in this instance.

J. Edgar Hoover Building at 925 Pennsyvania NW, Washington DC

J. Edgar Hoover Building at 925 Pennsylvania NW, Washington DC

Metzerott Hall, 1873, 925 Pennsylvania Ave, public domain via LOC, and the Hoover Bldg today

Metzerott Hall in 1873 at 925 Pennsylvania Ave, public domain via Library of Congress (above), and the Hoover Building today (below)

I head southwest along Pennsylvania Ave to 925 NW, the former site of Metzerott Hall now occupied by the humongous and hideous J. Edgar Hoover Building. Once called Iron Hall, its facade collapsed in 1894, presumably due to the massive weight of its iron portions.

On February 20th, 1895, Douglass addressed a meeting of the National Council of Women here. This address was his last act of public service: at about 7 that evening at home, as he described the events of this meeting to Helen, he fell to his knees and died suddenly of heart failure. Douglass’ friend Mark Twain also spoke here, and as we can see from the postcard at the left, the Equal Rights Association met here too. As you may remember, Douglass was a member. On May 15th, 1871, Douglass was appointed to the brand new Legislative Council of the Territorial Government of the District of Columbia by Ulysses S. Grant, who both Twain and Douglass admired. However, Douglass only kept the post for a little over a month. He resigned on June 20th, citing pressing engagements elsewhere, but I suspect Douglass might have suspected this legislature was flawed. Exactly 3 years after his resignation, the Territorial Government was abruptly disbanded for financial irresponsibility. As you may remember, while Grant was personally honest as far as historians can tell, his administration was infamous for its corruption and waste.

The Capitol Building with its dome under reconstruction

The Capitol Building with its dome under reconstruction

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, photographer unknown, public domain via LOC

First inauguration of President Lincoln, March 4, 1861, photographer unknown

I continue east on Pennsylvania Ave to the Capitol Building, and go around to its east facade off East Capitol St NE and First St SE.

On March 4th, 1861, Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on the steps of the not-quite-finished Capitol Building. Douglass did not attend but he read the Address and critiqued it sharply in Douglass’ Monthly, the successor to the North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. He described the address as ‘double-tongued’ and ‘…but little better than our worst fears, and vastly below what we had fondly hoped it would be’. Douglass viewed Lincoln’s refusal to take a strong stance against slavery as a betrayal of principle. He accused Lincoln of being as cowed by the slaveowners as previous administrations had been, as Lincoln stated his intention not to interfere with slavery where it already existed and promised to uphold fugitive slave laws in the North. Over time, Douglass realized that Lincoln personally hated slavery and that this conciliatory stance was a pragmatic way of attaining the presidency so he could save the Union and reform it gradually. But Lincoln’s caution and reticence went too far even for the pragmatic Douglass, who had lost his faith that slavery could be ended without force.

Abraham Lincoln delivering 2nd inaugural address as President of the U.S., Washington, D.C., photo Public Domain via LOC

Abraham Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address on the steps of the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.. This photo was made especially famous when historian Ronald C. White identified John Wilkes Booth among those standing on the platform above and to the right of Lincoln, to the right of the statue and just to the left of the tall man with the bowler hat

As we have already seen, however, Douglass did attend Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, held here on the steps of the then-finished Capitol Building on March 4, 1865. Douglass was far, far, better pleased with this one, to say the least. Lincoln, at last, had taken a firm stance against slavery, and the line ‘every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ surely resonated with Douglass’s sense of justice. He was ambivalent about violence throughout his life, but had come to believe it was sometimes both justified and necessary. Later that day at the White House reception, Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of this Address, presumably because he knew Douglass had so thoroughly and publicly excoriated Lincoln’s first.

Douglass was here at the Capitol Building one last time on the morning of his death. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was dropped off at the Congressional Library (Library of Congress) which was located in this building until it was moved across the street to the beautiful new Jefferson Building two years later, in 1897. More on that in tomorrow’s account.

The Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin among the cherry blossoms

The Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin among the cherry blossoms

It’s a beautiful early evening when I end my Douglass explorations for the day here at the Capitol Building. I make my way to the Jefferson Memorial to watch the sun set over the Tidal Basin through the cherry blossoms now in full bloom. Tomorrow will be my last day in D.C., and my last day following Douglass on this tour. To be continued….

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Sources and Inspiration:

Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia: Volume 2, Plate 21. By Baist, George William, William Edward, and Harry Valentine Baist, 1909. Via Library of Congress website

Blight, David W. ‘Lincoln, Douglass and the ‘Double-Tongued Document’’. New York Times Opinionator blog, May 6, 2011.

Blight, David W. ‘“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln‘. In The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Death Of Fred Douglass: Obituary‘, February 21, 1895, The New York Times from On This Day,

Douglass, Frederick. Address … January 9th, 1894, on the Lessons of the Hour. Press of Thomas and Evans, Baltimore, Maryland. From the Library of Congress website.

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. ‘Speech at a Surprise Party on Douglass’ 71st Birthday. 1889‘. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress website

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.

Gayle, Margot and Carol Gayle. Cast-iron Architecture in America: The Significance of James Bogardus. WW Norton & Co: New York, 1998.

Harris, Gardiner. ‘The Underside of the Welcome Mat‘, The New York Times, N0v. 8, 2008

Jefferson’s Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress‘, Library of Congress website

King, Gilbert. ‘The Great Dissenter and his Half-Brother‘. Dec 20, 2011,

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Muller, John. ‘Francis Grimke tells story of “The Second Marriage of Frederick Douglass” [The Journal of Negro History, 1934]’ In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Muller, John. ‘Frederick Douglass’ “Application for Permit to Build” for 316 & 318 A Street NE’. 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.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. Washington D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1948.

Roberts, Kim. ‘The Bethel Literary and Historical Society‘. Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Literary Organizations Issue.

Roe, Garrett W. Frederick Douglass’ ‘Homecoming’: Funeral and Burial, visual presentation, May 23rd 2014

Stiller, Jesse. ‘The Freedman’s Savings Bank: Good Intentions Were Not Enough; A Noble Experiment Goes Awry‘. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, U.S. Treasury Department website

Treasury to Commemorate 150th Anniversary of Freedman’s Bank,’ 12/29/2015 press release of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Press Center

Veroske, Ariel. ‘The Feather Duster Affair of 1874‘, June 20th, 2013, from

The Washington Times. (Washington, D.C.), 18 Feb. 1895. From Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass New York City Sites

Bank of New York at Wall and William Sts NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Bank of New York (cornerstone laid June 22 1797) at Wall and William Streets, New York City

Three old buildings on historic S. William Street, 2016 by Amy Cools

Three old buildings on historic S. William Street

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.

Stone St on the other side of S. William NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Stone St on the other side of S. William St., New York City

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.

Foundation brickwork from 1830's building at 13 S. William St, 2016 Amy Cools

Foundation brickwork from 1830’s building at 13 S. William St, NYC

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.

Sign at Collect Pond with story and picture of The Tombs, NYC, 2016 by Amy Cools

Sign at Collect Pond with story and picture of The Tombs, New York City

Criminal Courts building on Centre St, New York City, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Criminal Courts building on Centre St, New York City

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.

Jefferson quote on the New York City Criminal Courts Building

Jefferson quote on the New York City Criminal Courts 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.)

Church and Lispenard Streets, Tribeca, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Church and Lispenard Streets, Tribeca, NYC. The red brick building on the left stands at the site of David Ruggle’s house, now La Columbe Coffee at 36 Lispenard

David Ruggles House Plaque at 36 Lispenard, photo credit Steven E. Greer, used by permission

David Ruggles House Plaque at 36 Lispenard Street

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 home on Sept 15, 1838.

Cooper's Union at Cooper Square and Astor Place, NYC

Cooper’s Union at Cooper Square and Astor Place, NYC

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.

Historical plaques on Cooper's Union, New York City

Historical plaques on Cooper’s Union, New York City

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.

A view of 9th Ave, west side of street between 37th and 38th Sts, possible site of Apollo Hall in New York City

A view of 9th Ave, west side of street between 37th and 38th Sts, possible site of Apollo Hall in New York City

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.

American Anti-slavery Society Anniversary program, May 12 1863, N. Y.

American Anti-slavery Society Anniversary program, May 12 1863, N. Y.

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.

The former offices of Ida Wells' New York Age newspaper at 230 W. 135th St (center) Harlem, New York City

The former offices of Ida Wells’ New York Age newspaper at 230 W. 135th St (center) Harlem, New York City

230 and 232 W. 135th St, Harlem, New York City

230 and 232 W. 135th St, Harlem, New York City

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.

The New York Age, for Saturday, Sep 26, 1925

The New York Age, for Saturday, Sep 26, 1925, page four showing address of their offices

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.

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday 1930's NAACP flag, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday 1930’s NAACP flag, Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

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!

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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,

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