frederick douglass visits abraham lincoln -- 2/24/20

Some of the language in this book was and is offensive. It is quoted here from the original sources to offer insight into historical realities that African Americans of the era faced.

Today's selection -- from Every Drop of Blood by Edward Achorn. It is Saturday night, March 4, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln shakes hands with thousands of well-wishers at the White House, in a ceremony that will turn his white kid gloves black. Earlier that day, as he was inaugurated for the second time, Lincoln had delivered what many considered his greatest speech — "With malice toward none, with charity for all" — arguing that the devastating Civil War was God's judgment on both sides for the evil of slavery. African American leader Frederick Douglass, who had initially opposed Lincoln's re-election, considering him too weak against slavery, was stirred as he watched Lincoln deliver the speech and comes to the White House that night:

"The New York Herald noted in its characteristically racist language that a number of African Americans had turned up at the White House, hoping to get in. 'In this vestibule in the number of the visitors was a good specimen of the almighty nigger darkey, accompanied by several negro damsels,' the reporter observed. 'Many colored persons appeared to pay their respects to the President and lady,' the Washington Chronicle reported, 'among whom were Fred Douglass and wife.' America's most famous black man was visiting that night, patiently taking his place in the line. 'The negro seems quite disposed to make himself at home anywhere he pleases to go. What next?' a Vermont editor mused.

"Frederick Douglass had come to make precisely that point: that black people should be 'at home' anywhere in the United States. Though three African American men had, in fact, appeared at Lincoln's New Year's Day levee two months earlier, Douglass was under the impression that 'no colored persons had ever ventured to present themselves' at a presidential reception. The time had come, he concluded, for black people to assert themselves as full citizens. Douglass believed, 'now that freedom had become the law of the republic, and colored men were on the battle-field mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country, that it was not too great an assumption for a colored man to offer his congratulations to the President with those of other citizens.' The events of that day could only have reenforced these views, with black soldiers so prominent in the proceedings, and the president condemning slavery in his inaugural address.

"To his disgust, Douglass had been unable to find any black men brave enough to accompany him to the White House that night. The disdain that whites typically showed blacks, sometimes accompanied by force, could be unpleasant, 'and my colored friends had too often realized discomfiture from this cause to be willing to subject themselves to such unhappiness,' Douglass noted. But his associates enthusiastically encouraged him to make the effort. It reminded Douglass of his days in New England, when black friends prodded him to buy firstclass railroad tickets and seat himself among white people who were repulsed by the proximity of black people. Fellow African Americans were only too happy to have Douglass 'hauled out and pounded by rough-handed brakemen,' if it meant he would 'make way for them' through desegregation. 'It was plain, then, that someone must lead the way, and that if the colored man would have his rights, he must take them; and now, though it was plainly quite the thing for me to attend President Lincoln's reception, "they all with one accord began to make excuse"'—a reference to the Gospel of Luke's description of the supposed followers of Jesus who found reasons not to accompany their Lord.

Lincoln greets well-wishers in the White House's Blue Room in 1862, the same room where he greeted thousands of Americans on the night of March 4, 1865.

"Douglass finally found someone of his race brave enough to join him—Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, the wife of a friend who had once been enslaved in Maryland but had risen as a free man to become a successful caterer in Philadelphia. With Mrs. Dorsey on his arm—rather than his own wife, the mother of their five children, Anna Murray-Douglass, who was plain, poorly educated, and often ill—Douglass was ready to mingle with the most distinguished of Mr. Lincoln's visitors at the White House. As Douglass walked in, a feeling of pride rose up in him. 'I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the élite of the land, I felt myself a man among men,' he recalled. 'I regret to be obliged to say, however, that this comfortable assurance was not of long duration.'

"When he reached the front door, 'two policemen stationed there took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my color.' Douglass argued with them, insisting Lincoln would have given no such order and would, in fact, want to see him. With Douglass and his guest obstructing the entrance and refusing to step aside, police adopted a different tactic. They 'assumed an air of politeness, and offered to conduct me in.' But instead of bringing him to Lincoln, they took him directly to the East Room and marched him through the window and down the planks outdoors. Even after that, Douglass bravely refused to give in. 'You have deceived me,' he told the police. 'I shall not go out of this building till I see President Lincoln.' An unnamed member of Congress who knew Douglass was surprised the police would not permit this famous man to pass. 'Be so kind as to say to Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door,' Douglass told him. Shortly thereafter, Douglass and his companion were allowed to join the line for a handshake with the president.

"The president whom Douglass had disparaged as an 'excellent slave hound,' no more fit to hold the presidency than the Southern apologist James Buchanan, a creature devoid of a 'decided anti-slavery conviction and policy,' a craven politician who was willing to sell out the black people and had allowed his pragmatism to rob his statesmanship 'of all soul-moving utterances'—that very man, Douglass now knew, had doggedly undermined slavery, armed the former slaves, forced through a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery forever, and on this day had delivered a heartrending condemnation of slavery as the grave sin that had brought this murderous war on the United States. Now he moved slowly with his fellow Americans to shake the man's hand. Finally, Douglass entered the Blue Room. 'Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and homelike beauty,' Douglass recalled. Lincoln recognized him in line even before Douglass reached him.

"'Here comes my friend Douglass,' the president said. Taking him in the firm grip reserved for important acquaintances, Lincoln said, 'I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?'

"Douglass was embarrassed to be taking up far more than his allotted two and a half seconds. 'Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.'

"'No, no,' Lincoln said, 'you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.'

"Douglass replied, 'Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.'

"'I am glad you liked it!' Lincoln said.

"'I passed on,' Douglass recalled, 'feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.' Douglass concluded that there had been no order from Lincoln to keep out black people. The guards 'were simply complying with an old custom, the outgrowth of slavery, as dogs will sometimes rub their necks, long after their collars are removed, thinking they are still there.' Douglass left with the feeling that he had moved the nation one more step toward equal treatment of white and black Americans. 'My colored friends were well pleased with what had seemed to them a doubtful experiment, and I believe were encouraged by its success to follow my example. I have found in my experience that the way to break down an unreasonable custom is to contradict it in practice.'

"The Detroit Free Press reported that 'Fred. Douglass and lady' stuck out at the event, 'the observed of all observers.' The New York Herald, on the other hand, having failed to spot the guards' confrontation with Douglass, concluded that race was no longer an issue at such receptions: 'No notice was taken of the negroes present, and no remarks were made about them.' Whether he or his readers thought that was a good thing was another matter. Certainly, the Valley Spirit, a bitterly anti-administration journal published in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, was displeased. 'Things have greatly changed within the White House within the last four years,' its editor lamented. 'The star of Niggerism is now in the ascendant.' Douglass shared the racists' perception that the world was, indeed, changing. Black Americans, he reflected after the levee, were finally winning recognition as human beings—fully entitled, as Lincoln had long argued, to the inalienable rights recognized in the nation's essential founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Skin color alone did not make anyone inferior. The 'conditions of human associations are founded upon character rather than color,' Douglass concluded. And since 'character depends on mind and morals, there can be nothing blameworthy in people thus equal meeting each other on the plane of civil and social rights.'"



Edward Achorn


Every Drop of Blood


First Grove Atlantic


Copyright 2020 by Edward Achorn


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