Frederick Douglass arrived at the White House on a hot day in August 1863 without an appointment. He was a black man on a mission at a time when the country was torn by Civil War.
Douglass, the famous orator and abolitionist who had been recruiting “colored troops” for the Union Army, was incensed that black soldiers captured by Confederate troops had been mutilated, tortured and assassinated in cold blood. Some had been sold into slavery.
Douglass wanted an immediate meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. He was not sure he would get in. There was a throng in front of the White House waiting to see Lincoln. Some of them looked ragged and worn, like they had been waiting for days.
“They were white; and as I was the only dark spot among them,” Douglass said later. “I expected to have to wait at least half a day.”
Douglass sent his card up the line. It took only two minutes for a White House messenger to come out of the White House and summon in “Mr. Douglass!”
The crowd of white people in line murmured.
“I could hear, in the eager multitude outside, as they saw me pressing and elbowing my way through, the remark, ‘Yes, damn it, I knew they would let the n—– through,’” Douglass would later recount to an audience of abolitionists in Philadelphia, according to his book “Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings.”
It was an astonishing moment in the astonishing life of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, who was born enslaved on Maryland’s Eastern Shore 200 years ago. Although he did not know the exact date of his birth, he would later celebrate it as Feb. 14, 1818 — a bicentennial being marked across the country this week amid black history month. His mother was an enslaved black woman, whom he could barely remember, and his father was a white man — perhaps a slave owner.
Douglass, who bore the scars of brutal lashings, was 20 when he escaped slavery. “It was life and death with me. On the third day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind,” Douglass wrote in “FREDERICK DOUGLASS’ NARRATIVE — Memoirs of an American Slave, Freedom Fighter & Statesman.”
He changed his name from Bailey to Johnson. After he married Anna Murray, they both changed their last names to Douglass.
Frederick Douglass went on to become one of the most famous men in the country, an abolitionist, a powerful orator, an advocate for women’s rights, a brilliant strategist, a newspaper owner, a friend to John Brown and Harriet Tubman.
After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, which included a provision calling for black men to enlist in the U.S. Army, Douglass fervently began recruiting for the Union.
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass wrote, “there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Two of Douglass’s sons — Charles and Lewis — were among the first black men to enlist. His son Frederick worked to recruit “colored troops” in the Mississippi Valley. Douglass helped recruit at least two regiments — the 54th and 55th — Massachusetts regiments of “colored troops.”
As the war raged, black soldiers imprisoned by Confederate forces were mutilated and assassinated. Some free black men fighting for the Union were captured and sold into slavery.
The silence from the White House infuriated Douglass, who published a letter in his “Douglass Monthly” newspaper criticizing the president.
The letter, which carried a Rochester dateline, was addressed to Maj. George L. Stearns, who helped establish the Emancipation League and recruited the 54th and 55th regiments.
“I owe it to my long-abused people, and especially to those already in the army, to expose their wrongs and plead their cause,” Douglass wrote in “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself.”
Douglass explained he could not in good faith continue to recruit black men, criticizing Lincoln and the War Department for failing to retaliate for “colored” prisoners of war assassinated “in cold blood” by Confederate troops.
“No word was said when free men from Massachusetts were caught and sold into slavery in Texas,” Douglass wrote. “No word is said when brave black men, who according to testimony of both friend and foe, fought like heroes to plant the star-spangled banner on the blazing parapets of Fort Wagner, and in doing so were captured, some mutilated and killed, and others sold into slavery.”
Stearns urged Douglass to travel to Washington to talk directly to Lincoln, a trip still dangerous for a black man.
“I hereby authorize Frederick Douglass,” Stearns wrote, “to go to Washington, D.C. as my Agent to transact business connected with Recruiting Service for United States Colored Volunteers.”
Douglass was unsure how he would be received.
“The distance then between the black man and the white American citizen was immeasurable,” Douglass wrote in “Life and Times.” “I was an ex-slave, identified with a despised race, and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great republic.”
It was early morning when Douglass arrived at the B&O station in Washington.
“Yet the city was bustling,” John Stauffer wrote in “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass.” “He could not help but notice the large numbers of blacks, some already working, a few sleeping in the open air. In a little over a year, over eleven thousand freedmen and women, called ‘contraband of war,’ had flocked on the city, and another three thousand were housed at Alexandria.”
Douglass, dressed in a white stiff collar and black over coat, cut a distinguishing figure in the crowd. On the street, he encountered Samuel C. Pomeroy, a senator from Kansas, who accompanied him to the White House and introduced him to Lincoln.
When Douglass entered the room, he found Lincoln sitting in a low-arm chair, without vanity or “pomp and ceremony.” Lincoln’s feet, Douglass wrote, were extended and the president was surrounded by stacks of documents and “busy” secretaries.
Lincoln appeared tired, but rose and extended his hand. Douglass began to introduce himself. Lincoln stopped him: “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass.”
Douglass wasted no time getting to the point.
“I wished to bring to his attention,” Douglass later wrote, “first, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers. Second, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily and on the same terms as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang colored soldiers in cold blood, the United States government should retaliate in kind and degree without delay upon Confederate prisoners in its hands.”
Lincoln’s voice quivered, Douglass later wrote, when he explained his loathing of executions done in retaliation.
“If I could get hold of the men that murdered your troops, murdered our prisoners of war, I would execute them,” Lincoln told Douglass. “But I cannot take men that may not have had anything to do with this murdering of our soldiers and execute them.”
Lincoln promised to sign any commission recommended by the secretary of war for black soldiers. He did not commit to equal pay.
“Though I was not entirely satisfied with his views,” Douglass wrote later, “I was so well satisfied with the man and with the educating tendency of the conflict that I determined to go on with the recruiting.”
Lincoln extended at least three more White House invitations to Douglass, including to the president’s second inauguration. He listened on March 4, 1865, as Lincoln called slavery “an offense” against God and described “this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”
The president concluded: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
After the swearing-in ceremony, Douglass walked to the White House. Douglass recalled the “grand procession of citizens from all parts of the country,” making their way there.
“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,” Douglass wrote in “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.”
When he arrived at the door, two police officers stopped him because he was black. The officers “took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my color.”
Douglass told the officers they were making a mistake and he had been invited by Lincoln himself.
“If he knew I was at the door, he would desire my admission,” Douglass insisted. The officers escorted Douglass to a “temporary passage for the exit of visitors.”
Douglass refused to leave. “I shall not go out of this building till I see President Lincoln,” he told them.
Just then a man who was passing recognized Douglass, who asked him to relay a message to Lincoln that he was being detained at the door. Not long after that, Douglass was escorted into the East Room.
“Amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never before witnessed,” Douglass wrote. “Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and homelike beauty. Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’”
Lincoln took his hand and said, according to Douglass, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it?” “I said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.’ ”
“No, no,” he 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.”
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