Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVII.: INCIDENTS AND EVENTS. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
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CHAPTER XVII.: INCIDENTS AND EVENTS. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
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INCIDENTS AND EVENTS.
Hon. Gerrit Smith and Mr. E. C. Delevan—Experiences at hotels and on steamboats and other modes of travel—Hon. Edward Marshall—Grace Greenwood—Hon. Moses Norris—Robert J. Ingersoll—Reflections and conclusions—Compensations.
IN escaping from the South, the reader will have observed that I did not escape from its wide-spread influence in the North. That influence met me almost everywhere outside of pronounced anti-slavery circles, and sometimes even within them. It was in the air, and men breathed it and were permeated by it, often when they were quite unconscience of its presence.
I might recount many occasions when I have encountered this feeling, some painful and melancholy, some ridiculous and amusing. It has been a part of my mission to expose the absurdity of this spirit of caste and in some measure help to emancipate men from its control.
Invited to accompany the Hon. Gerrit Smith to dine with Mr. E. C. Delevan, at Albany many years ago, I expressed to Mr. Smith, my awkwardness and embarrassment in the society I was likely to meet there. “Ah!” said that good man, “you must go, Douglass, it is your mission to break down the walls of separation between the two races.” I went with Mr. Smith, and was soon made at ease by Mr. Delevan and the ladies and gentlemen there. They were among the most refined and brilliant people I had ever met. I felt somewhat surprised that I could be so much at ease in such company, but I found it then, as I have since, that the higher the gradation in intelligence and refinement, the farther removed are all artificial distinctions, and restraints of mere caste or colour.
In one of my anti-slavery campaigns in New York, five and thirty years ago, I had an appointment at Victor, a town in Ontario County. I was compelled to stop at the hotel. It was the custom at that time, to seat the guests at a long table running the length of the dining room. When I entered I was shown a little table in a corner. I knew what it meant, but took my dinner all the same. When I went to the desk to pay my bill, I said, “Now, landlord, be good enough to tell me just why you gave me my dinner at the little table in the corner by myself?” He was equal to the occasion, and quickly replied: “Because you see, I wished to give you something better than the others.” The cool reply staggered me, and I gathered up my change, muttering only that I did not want to be treated better than other people, and bade him good morning.
On an anti-slavery tour through the West, in company with H. Ford Douglas, a young coloured man of fine intellect and much promise, and my old friend John Jones, both now deceased, we stopped at a hotel in Janesville, and were seated by ourselves to take our meals, where all the bar-room loafers of the town could stare at us. Thus seated I took occasion to say, loud enough for the crowd to hear me, that I had just been out to the stable and had made a great discovery. Asked by Mr. Jones what my discovery was, I said that I saw there, black horses and white horses eating together from the same trough in peace, from which I inferred that the horses of Janesville were more civilized than its people. The crowd saw the hit, and broke out into a good-natured laugh. We were afterwards entertained at the same table with other guests.
Many years ago, on my way from Cleveland to Buffalo, on one of the Lake steamers, the gong sounded for supper. There was a rough element on board, such as at that time might be found anywhere between Buffalo and Chicago. It was not to be trifled with especially when hungry. At the first sound of the gong there was a furious rush for the table. From prudence, more than from lack of appetite, I waited for the second table, as did several others. At this second table I took a seat far apart from the few gentlemen scattered along its side, but directly opposite a well dressed, finely-featured man, of the fairest complexion, high forehead, golden hair and light beard. His whole appearance told me he was somebody. I had been seated but a minute or two, when the steward came to me, and roughly ordered me away. I paid no attention to him, but proceeded to take my supper, determined not to leave, unless compelled to do so by superior force, and being young and strong I was not entirely unwilling to risk the consequences of such a contest. A few moments passed, when on each side of my chair, there appeared a stalwart of my own race. I glanced at the gentleman opposite. His brow was knit, his colour changed from white to scarlet, and his eyes were full of fire. I saw the lightning flash, but I could not tell where it would strike. Before my sable brethren could execute their captain’s orders, and just as they were about to lay violent hands upon me, a voice from that man of golden hair and fiery eyes resounded like a clap of summer thunder. “Let the gentleman alone! I am not ashamed to take my tea with Mr. Douglass.” His was a voice to be obeyed, and my right to my seat and my supper was no more disputed.
I bowed my acknowledgments to the gentleman, and thanked him for his chivalrous interference; and as modestly as I could, asked him his name. “I am Edward Marshall, of Kentucky, now of California,” he said. “Sir, I am very glad to know you, I have just been reading your speech in Congress,” I said. Supper over, we passed several hours in conversation with each other, during which he told me of his political career in California, of his election to Congress, and that he was a Democrat, but had no prejudice against colour. He was then just coming from Kentucky, where he had been in part to see his black mammy, for, said he, “I was nursed at the breasts of a coloured mother.”
I asked him if he knew my old friend John A. Collins in California. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “he is a smart fellow; he ran against me for Congress. I charged him with being an Abolitionist, but he denied it, so I sent off and got the evidence of his having been general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and that settled him.”
During the passage, Mr. Marshall invited me into the bar-room to take a drink. I excused myself from drinking, but went down with him. There were a number of thirsty-looking individuals standing around, to whom Mr. Marshall said, “Come, boys, take a drink.” When the drinking was over, he threw down upon the counter a twenty-dollar gold piece, at which the bar-keeper made large eyes, and said he could not change it. “Well, keep it,” said the gallant Marshall, “it will all be gone before morning.” After this, we naturally fell apart, and he was monopolized by other company; but I shall never fail to bear willing testimony to the generous and manly qualities of this brother of the gifted and eloquent Thomas Marshall of Kentucky.
In 1842 I was sent by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to hold a Sunday meeting in Pittsfield, N.H., and was given the name of Mr. Hilles, a subscriber to the Liberator. It was supposed that any man who had the courage to take and read the Liberator, edited by Wm. Lloyd Garrison, or the Herald of Freedom, edited by Nathaniel P. Rodgers, would gladly receive and give food and shelter to any coloured brother labouring in the cause of the slave. As a general rule this was very true.
There were no railroads in New Hampshire in those days, so I reached Pittsfield by stage, glad to be permitted to ride upon the top, for no coloured person could be allowed inside. This was many years before the days of Civil Rights Bills, black Congressmen, coloured United States Marshals, and such like.
Arriving at Pittsfield, I was asked by the driver where I would stop. I gave him the name of my subscriber to the Liberator. “That is two miles beyond,” he said. So after landing his other passengers, he took me on to the house of Mr. Hilles.
I confess I did not seem a very desirable visitor. The day had been warm and the road dusty. I was covered with dust, and then I was not of the colour fashionable in that neighbourhood, for coloured people were scarce in that part of the old Granite State. I saw in an instant, that though the weather was warm, I was to have a cool reception; but cool or warm, there was no alternative left me but to stay and take what I could get.
Mr. Hilles scarcely spoke to me, and from the moment he saw me jump down from the top of the stage, carpet-bag in hand, his face wore a troubled look. His good wife took the matter more philosophically, and evidently thought my presence there for a day or two could do the family no especial harm; but her manner was restrained, silent, and formal, wholly unlike that of anti-slavery ladies I had met in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
When tea time came, I found that Mr. Hilles had lost his appetite, and could not come to the table. I suspected his trouble was colourphobia, and though I regretted his malady, I knew his case was not necessarily dangerous; and I was not without some confidence in my skill and ability in healing diseases of that type. I was, however, so affected by his condition that I could not eat much of the pie and cake before me, and felt so little in harmony with things about me that I was, for me, remarkably reticent during the evening, both before and after the family worship, for Mr. Hilles was a pious man.
Sunday morning came, and in due season the hour for meeting. I had arranged a good supply of work for the day. I was to speak four times at ten o’clock a.m., at one p.m., at five, and again at half-past seven in the evening.
When meeting time came, Mr. Hilles brought his fine phaeton to the door, assisted his wife in, and, although there were two vacant seats in his carriage, there was no room in it for me. On driving off from his door, he merely said, addressing me, “You can find your way to the town hall, I suppose?” “I suppose I can,” I replied, and started along behind his carriage on the dusty road toward the village. I found the hall, and was very glad to see in my small audience the face of good Mrs. Hilles. Her husband was not there but had gone to his church. There was no one to introduce me, and I proceeded with my discourse without introduction. I held my audience till twelve o’clock—noon—and then took the usual recess of Sunday meetings in country towns, to allow the people to take their lunch. No one invited me to lunch, so I remained in the town hall till the audience assembled again, when I spoke till nearly three o’clock, when the people again dispersed and left me as before. By this time I began to be hungry, and seeing a small hotel near, I went into it, and offered to buy a meal; but I was told “they did not entertain niggers there.” I went back to the old town hall hungry and chilled, for an infant “New England north-easter” was beginning to chill the air, and a drizzling rain to fall. I saw that my movements were being observed, from the comfortable homes around, with apparently something of the feeling that children might experience in seeing a bear prowling about town. There was a grave yard near the town hall, and attracted thither, I felt some relief in contemptating the resting place of the dead, where there was an end to all distinctions between rich and poor, white and coloured, high and low.
While thus meditating on the vanities of the world and my own loneliness and destitution, and recalling the sublime pathos of the saying of Jesus, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head,” I was approached rather hesitatingly by a gentleman, who inquired my name. “My name is Douglass,” I replied. “You do not seem to have any place to stay at while in town?” I told him I had not. “Well,” said he, “I am no Abolitionist, but if you will go with me I will take care of you.” I thanked him, and turned with him towards his fine residence. On the way I asked him his name. “Moses Norris,” he said. “What! the Hon. Moses Norris?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. I did not for a moment know what to do, for I had read that this same man had literally dragged the Reverend George Storrs from the pulpit for preaching Abolitionism. I, however, walked along with him and was invited into his house, when I heard the children running and screaming “Mother, mother, there is a nigger in the house, there’s a nigger in the house”; and it was with some difficulty that Mr. Norris succeeded in quieting the tumult. I saw that Mrs. Norris, too, was much disturbed by my presence, and I thought for a moment of beating a retreat, but the kind assurance of Mr. Norris decided me to stay. When quiet was restored, I ventured the experiment of asking Mrs. Norris to do me a kindness. I said, “Mrs. Norris, I have taken cold, and am hoarse from speaking, and I have found that nothing relieves me so readily as a little loaf sugar and cold water.” The lady’s manner changed, and with her own hands she brought me the water and sugar. I thanked her with genuine earnestness, and from that moment I could see that her prejudices were more than half gone, and that I was more than half welcome at the fireside of this Democratic Senator. I spoke again in the evening, and at the close of the meeting there was quite a contest between Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Hilles, as to which I should go home with. I considered Mrs. Hilles’ kindness to me, though her manner had been formal; I knew the cause, and I thought, especially as my carpet-bag was there, I would go with her. So giving Mr. and Mrs. Norris many thanks, I bade them good-bye, and went home with Mr. and Mrs. Hilles, where I found the atmosphere wonderously and most agreeably changed. Next day, Mr. Hilles took me in the same carriage in which I did not ride on Sunday, to my next appointment, and on the way told me he felt more honoured by having me in it, than he would be if he had the President of the United States. This compliment would have been a little more flattering to my self-esteem, had not John Tyler then occupied the Presidential chair.
In those unhappy days of the Republic, when all presumptions were in favour of slavery, and a coloured man as a slave met less resistance in the use of public conveyances than a coloured man as a freeman, I happened to be in Philadelphia, and was afforded an opportunity to witness this preference. I took a seat in a street car by the side of my friend Mrs. Amy Post, of Rochester, New York, who, like myself, had come to Philadelphia to attend an anti-slavery meeting. I had no sooner seated myself when the conductor hastened to remove me from the car. My friend remonstrated, and the amazed conductor said, “Lady, does he belong to you?” “He does,” said Mrs. Post, and there the matter ended. I was allowed to ride in peace, not because I was a man, and had paid my fare, but because I belonged to somebody. My colour was no longer offensive when it was supposed that I was not a person, but a piece of property.
Another time, in the same city, I took a seat, unobserved, far up in the street car, among the white passengers. All at once I heard the conductor, in an angry tone, order another coloured man, who was modestly standing on the platform of the rear end of the car, to get off, and actually stopped the car to push him off, when I, from within, with all the emphasis I could throw into my voice, in imitation of my chivalrous friend Marshall of Kentucky, sung out, “Go on! let the gentleman alone; no one here objects to his riding!” Unhappily the fellow saw where the voice came from, and turned his wrathful attention to me, and said, “You shall get out also!” I told him I would do no such thing, and if he attempted to remove me by force he would do it at his peril. Whether the young man was afraid to tackle me, or did not wish to disturb the passengers, I do not know. At any rate he did not attempt to execute his threat, and I rode on in peace till I reached Chestnut Street, when I got off and went about my business.
On my way down the Hudson river, from Albany to New York, at one time, on the steamer “Alida,” in company with some English ladies who had seen me in their own country, received and treated me as a gentleman, I ventured, like any other passenger, to go, at the call of the dinner bell, into the cabin and take a seat at the table; but I was forcibly taken from it and compelled to leave the cabin. My friends, who wished to enjoy a day’s trip on the beautiful Hudson, left the table with me, and went to New York hungry, and not a little indignant and disgusted at such barbarism. There were influential persons on board the “Alida,” on this occasion, a word from whom might have spared me this indignity; but there was no Edward Marshall among them to defend the weak and rebuke the strong.
When Miss Sarah Jane Clark, one of America’s brilliant literary ladies, known to the world under the nom de plume of Grace Greenwood, was young, and as brave as she was beautiful, I encountered a similar experience to that on the Alida on one of the Ohio river steamers; and that lady, being on board, arose from her seat at the table, expressed her disapprobation, and moved majestically away with her sister to the upper deck. Her conduct seemed to amaze the lookers on, but it filled me with grateful admiration.
When on my way to attend the great Free Soil Convention at Pittsburg, in 1852, which nominated John P. Hale for President, and George W. Julian for Vice-President, the train stopped for dinner at Alliance, Ohio, and I attempted to enter the hotel with the other delegates, but was rudely repulsed, when many of them, learning of it, rose from the table, and denouncing the outrage, refused to finish their dinners.
In anticipation of our return, at the close of the Convention, Mr. Sam. Beck, the proprietor of the hotel, prepared dinner for three hundred guests, but when the train arrived, not one of the large company went into his place, and his dinner was left to spoil.
A dozen years ago, or more, on one of the frostiest and coldest nights I ever experienced, I delivered a lecture in the town of Elmwood, Illinois, twenty miles distant from Peoria. It was one of those bleak and flinty nights, when prairie winds pierce like needles, and a step on the snow sounds like a file on the steel teeth of a saw. My next appointment after Elmwood was on Monday night, and in order to reach it in time it was necessary to go to Peoria the night previous, so as to take an early morning train, and I could only accomplish this by leaving Elmwood after my lecture at midnight, for there was no Sunday train. So a little before the hour at which my train was expected at Elmwood, I started for the station with my friend Mr. Brown, the gentleman who had kindly entertained me during my stay. On the way I said to him, “I am going to Peoria with something like a real dread of the place. I expect to be compelled to walk the streets of that city all night to keep from freezing.” I told him “that the last time I was there I could obtain no shelter at any hotel, and that I feared I should meet a similar exclusion to-night.” Mr. Brown was visibly affected by the statement, and for some time was silent. At last, as if suddenly discovering a way out of a painful situation, he said, “I know a man in Peoria, should the hotels be closed against you there, who would gladly open his doors to you—a man who will receive you at any hour of the night, and in any weather, and that man is Robert J. Ingersoll.” “Why,” said I, “it would not do to disturb a family at such a time as I shall arrive there, on a night so cold as this.” “No matter about the hour,” he said; “neither he nor his family would be happy if they thought you were shelterless on such a night. I know Mr. Ingersoll, and that he will be glad to welcome you at midnight or at cock-crow.” I became much interested by this description of Mr. Ingersoll. Fortunately I had no occasion for disturbing him or his family. I found quarters at the best hotel in the city for the night. In the morning I resolved to know more of this now famous and noted “infidel.” I gave him an early call, for I was not so abundant in cash as to refuse hospitality in a strange city when on a mission of “good will to men.” The experiment worked admirably. Mr. Ingersoll was at home, and if I have ever met a man with real living human sunshine in his face, and honest, manly kindness in his voice, I met one who possessed these qualities that morning. I received a welcome from Mr. Ingersoll and his family which would have been a cordial to the bruised heart of any proscribed and storm-beaten stranger, and one which I can never forget nor fail to appreciate. Perhaps there were Christian ministers and Christian families in Peoria at that time, by whom I might have been received in the same gracious manner. In charity I am bound to say there probably were such ministers and such families, but I am equally bound to say that in my former visits to that place I had failed to find them. Incidents of this character have greatly tended to liberalize my views as to the value of creeds in estimating the character of men. They have brought me to the conclusion that genuine goodness is the same, whether found inside or outside the Church, and that to be an “infidel” no more proves a man to be selfish, mean, and wicked, than to be evangelical proves him to be honest, just, and humane.
It may possibly be inferred from what I have said of the prevalence of prejudice, and the practice of proscription, that I have had a very miserable sort of life, or that I must be remarkably insensible to public aversion. Neither inference is true. I have neither been miserable because of the ill-feeling of those about me, nor indifferent to popular approval; and I think, upon the whole, I have passed a tolerably cheerful and even joyful life. I have never felt myself isolated since I entered the field to plead the cause of the slave, and demand equal rights for all. In every town and city where it has been my lot to speak, there have been raised up for me friends of both colours to cheer and strengthen me in my work. I have always felt, too, that I had on my side all the invisible forces of the moral government of the universe. Happily for me I have had the wit to distinguish between what is merely artificial and transient and what is fundamental and permanent, and resting on the latter, I could cheerfully encounter the former. “How do you feel,” said a friend to me, “when you are hooted and jeered in the street on account of your colour?” “I feel as if an ass had kicked but had hit nobody,” was my answer.
I have been greatly helped to bear up under unfriendly conditions, too, by a constitutional tendency to see the funny sides of things, which has enabled me to laugh at follies that others would soberly resent. Besides, there were compensations as well as drawbacks in my relations to the white race. A passenger on the deck of a Hudson River steamer, covered with a shawl, well-worn and dingy, I was addressed by a remarkably-religiously-missionary-looking man in black coat and white cravat, who took me for one of the noble red men of the far West, with “From away back?” I was silent, and he added, “Indian, Indian?” “No, no,” I said; “I am a negro.” The dear man seemed to have no missionary work with me, and retreated with evident marks of disgust.
On another occasion, travelling by a night train on the New York Central railroad, when the cars were crowded and seats were scarce, and I was occupying a whole seat, the only luxury my colour afforded me in travelling, I had lain down with my head partly covered, thinking myself secure in my possession, when a well dressed man approached and wished to share the seat with me. Slightly rising, I said, “Don’t sit down here, my friend, I am a nigger.” “I don’t care who the devil you are,” he said, “I mean to sit with you.” “Well, if it must be so,” I said, “I can stand it if you can,” and we at once fell into a very pleasant conversation, and passed the hours on the road very happily together. These two incidents illustrate my career in respect of popular prejudice. If I have had kicks, I have also had kindness. If cast down, I have been exalted; and the latter experience has, after all, far exceeded the former.
During a quarter of a century I resided in the city of Rochester, N.Y. When I removed from there, my friends caused a marble bust of me to be carved, and since honoured it with a place in Sibley Hall, Rochester University. Less in a spirit of vanity than that of gratitude, I copy here the remarks of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on the occasion, and on my letter of thanks for the honour done me by my friends and fellow-citizens of that beautiful city:
Rochester, June 28, 1879
“It will be remembered that a bust of Frederick Douglass was recently placed in Sibley Hall of the University of Rochester. The ceremonies were quite informal, too informal, we think, as commemorating a deserved tribute from the people of Rochester to one who will always rank as among her most distinguished citizens. Mr. Douglass himself was not notified officially of the event, and therefore could, in no public manner, take notice of it. He was, however, informed privately of it by the gentleman whose address is given below, and responded to it most happily, as will be seen by the following letter which we are permitted to publish.” Then follows the letter which I omit, and add the further comments of the Chronicle. “It were alone worth all the efforts of the gentlemen who united in the fitting recognition of the public services and the private worth of Frederick Douglass, to have inspired a letter thus tender in its sentiment, and so suggestive of the various phases of a career than which the republic has witnessed none more strange or more noble. Frederick Douglass can hardly be said to have risen to greatness on account of the opportunities which the republic offers to self-made men, and concerning which we are apt to talk with an abundance of self-gratulation. It sought to fetter his mind equally with his body. For him it built no school-house, and for him it erected no church. So far as he was concerned freedom was a mockery, and law was the instrument of tyranny. In spite of law and gospel, despite of statutes which thralled him and opportunities which jeered at him, he made himself, by trampling on the law and breaking through the thick darkness that encompassed him. There is no sadder commentary upon American slavery than the life of Frederick Douglass. He put it under his feet and stood erect in the majesty of his intellect; but how many intellects as brilliant and as powerful as his it stamped upon and crushed, no mortal can tell until the secrets of its terrible despotism are fully revealed. Thanks to the conquering might of American freemen, such sad beginnings of such illustrious lives as that of Frederick Douglas are no longer possible; and that they are no longer possible, is largely due to him who, when his lips were unlocked, became a deliverer of his people. Not alone did his voice proclaim emancipation. Eloquent as was that voice, his life in its pathos and in its grandeur, was more eloquent still, and where shall be found, in the annals of humanity, a sweeter rendering of poetic justice than that he, who has passed through such vicissitudes of degradation and exaltation, has been permitted to behold the redemption of his race?
“Rochester is proud to remember that Frederick Douglass was, for many years, one of her citizens. He who pointed out the house where Douglass lived, hardly exaggerated when he called it the residence of the greatest of our citizens; for Douglass must rank as among the greatest men, not only of this city, but of the nation as well—great in gifts, greater in utilizing them; great in his inspiration, greater in his efforts for humanity; great in the persuasion of his speech, greater in the purpose that informed it.
“Rochester could do nothing more graceful than to perpetuate in marble the features of this citizen in her hall of learning; and it is pleasant for her to know that he so well appreciates the esteem in which he is held here. It was a thoughtful thing for Rochester to do, and the response is as heartfelt as the tribute is appropriate.”