Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Frederick Douglass visits Chariton

Frederick Douglass

I’ve been wondering the last couple of days, after re-reading accounts of a visit Frederick Douglass made to Chariton during January of 1873, what he would make of our current culture wars, the current state of “Christianity” and what he might say about both.

For those who have forgotten, Douglass --- born into slavery in Maryland about 1818 --- became after his escape to freedom in the North a social reformer on many fronts, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman --- one of the towering intellects of the mid to later 19th century.

Once the battle for emancipation had been won, he continued to fight for universal suffrage, including women's suffrage, equality and an end to racism.

Here’s what Douglass had to say during 1845 about the state of Christianity in the context of slavery:

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave)


When Douglass arrived in Chariton during January of 1873, he was traveling on the lecture circuit. He had recently moved his family to Washington, D.C., after the family home in Rochester, N.Y., had burned --- a fire involving suspected arson.

His address to the people of Chariton on the topic “Self-made Men” would be the first delivered in the brand new Mallory Opera House, a grand building at the north end of the west side of Chariton’s square.

The Chariton Patriot, in its edition of Tuesday, Jan. 15, carried the following notice of his impending visit under the headline, “Frederick Douglass”:

“We are glad to announce that the people of Chariton and vicinity are to have an opportunity of listening to a lecture from this eminent orator. He is to speak at Mallory’s Opera Hall on Saturday evening, January 25th. It is needless to say much of him, as the name of “Fred Douglass” is a household word in this country, and he justly stands second to none of the many able speakers. Mr. Douglass is pre-eminently the representative man of the colored race in the United States, and being but part African blood, has a right to the claim he makes to speak for the white race as well.”

Doors would open at 7 p.m. with the address to begin at 7:30. Cost of admission was to be 50 cents.

The reference here to “but part African blood” reflects a conceit, even among the more liberal, that began as astonished disbelief among the white majority when Douglass published his first autobiography in 1845. A black person couldn’t possibly have written it, most white folks thought.

When it became evident that Douglass was in fact a highly-skilled writer, as well as an accomplished orator, whites invented a new conceit --- that his father had been white --- implying that “white” blood could somehow redeem “black” blood and explain his talents.

Douglass in fact had no idea who his father was and never identified as anything other than black. As was common practice in slave-holding society, he had been separated from his mother when he was weaned and placed in the care of a grandmother. At age 7, he was taken from his grandmother and moved to another plantation.


The turnout for Douglass’s lecture that January night was disappointing, but probably not surprising in a place like Chariton. Patriot editor Moses Folsom reported on it this way, with an edge of sarcasm, in his Jan. 29 edition:

“The audience was good, of course in point of quality, for it is usually the more intelligent of community that attend first class lectures. But we are ashamed to announce the fact that but a little over a hundred made up the number of hearers. Mr. Douglass is universally acknowledged to be one of our best lecturers, and from this fact, together with the prominent position that he has occupied as the leading representative of the colored race in this country, one would have supposed that the mere announcement , that he would speak in our town for the first, and probably last, time would have been sufficient to insure a crowded house. But so far as this from being true, that bills and “flaming posters” were necessary to draw the meager number named. We hope that his is not a fair test of Chariton’s disposition in a literary point of view, and comfort ourselves with the thought that the Methodist meeting being in progress, and money very scarce, may account in a great measure for the small attendance.”

Despite his righteous indignation, even the broad-minded Folsom was prone a little racism himself: “His language, his style of delivery and general appearance on the platform all indicated a high degree of culture, while the entire absence of that affectation and egotism which so frequently is found with colored speakers has been a matter of remark by many who heard him,” Folsom reported.

It would be interesting to know how many “colored” speakers Folsom, then in his mid-20s, had listened to previously. Still, the editor’s heart was in the right place.


Good-hearted probably wouldn’t describe the outlook of the editor of the Patriot’s competitor, the Chariton Leader, who also covered the Douglass address.

It’s not clear who the editor was, since no Patriot issues of this date survive. It may have been N.B. Branner, a Chariton attorney/editor who had returned home a few years earlier after Civil War service for the Confederacy. Or perhaps Dan Baker, also an attorney/editor, who was a colleague.The Patriot was Lincoln Republican in editorial outlook; the Leader, Copperhead Democrat.

Because issues of The Leader did not survive, we have to rely on Folsom’s Feb. 5 account of what was written there

“The last week’s Leader, in commenting on Fred Douglass’ lecture, after speaking very favorable of it, proceeds to use the following language,” Folsom reported.

“We give the white blood all the credit for whatever ability or genius he may exhibit. We have failed so far in our life to see any thing in the colored race which entitles it to respect as the social or mental equal of the whites, and we don’t believe that God or nature ever intended that race to stand on equal footing with Caucasian, and it --- never will!”

Folsom responded (in part), “Now the query arises, Whence the necessity for this attack on the colored race? Suppose it is true that “God never intended that they should stand on an equal footing with the Caucasian.” (Which by the way would be accusing Him of a partiality that is inconsistent with His character as we have been educated to view it.” Is it necessary to be continually reminding them of the fact, and of their inferiority? We think not. Indeed we see no apology for it, either in the light of etiquette or Christianity.”

Editors Folsom and Baker moved on --- Folsom roamed the country after the mid-1870s in various professional capacities until ending up finally in Florida; Baker left for California in the 1880s where he gained a reputation as a crusading newspaper editor. Branner, whose family was affluent and prominent in Chariton into the early 20th century, stuck around until death, foregoing bachelorhood late in life to marry a caregiver.

The culture wars continue, however, even emerging now and then in the pages of our local newspapers.

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