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The Late Frederick Douglass



Interesting Reminiscences by Mrs Dall of the Great Champion of the Negro Race, With Notes Upon a Few Current Biographical Works.

To the Editor of The Republican:–

We have now two new numbers of the Beacon biographies, published by Small, Maynard & Co, the Lives of Aaron Burr and Frederick Douglass. It is clear that we are not again to have anything as fine as the sketch of Phillips Brooks, but these volumes are conceived in the same admirable method as those that have gone before. The chronology and bibliography are invaluable to the student. I only quarrel with the choice of subjects. The sketch of Aaron Burr is the best, because the briefest which is easily accessible, but why should the man who did his utmost to sever the Union, and who more than once drew tears to the eyes of Washington, be commemorated before John A. Andrew, who cemented it, sustained by the brave spirit and long purse of John M. Forbes? I am thankful, however, to see in these sketches, thus far, no attempt to reconstruct character, and perhaps this is as much as we older people can expect. I am tired of reconstructed Washingtons and Franklins. I do not thank the people who attempt to outline lives of whose motive they appear utterly ignorant! Greed and irreverence are eating out the core of our national honor, as an acid devours an alkali. Glad am I that I shall not live to see the natural result.

Still, there is a bit of reconstruction to which I must put my hand. I wish I had known Mr Chesnutt was to write the life of Frederick Douglass, for I might have induced him to tell the story of his parentage as Frederick told it to me. A short time before Mr Douglass died, I went out to his house in Uniontown to meet a party of old friends from the North. Mrs Douglass and the ladies had gone out into the grounds, and I was left alone in the modest parlor with her husband. Opposite us, on the wall, hung a rude portrait in oil, which I had not observed before. "Who does that represent?" I asked. "It is not well painted, but it is certainly a likeness of somebody!" "It was meant for me when I was 30 years old," answered my friend. "Why!" I exclaimed, "It is the portrait of an Omaha!" "Naturally enough," he replied. "What do you mean, Frederick?" I went on. "I have often wanted to ask you about your parents. I know you were the son of a white master. Was there in the white blood he gave you anything to account for your own power, especially for your marvelous command of the language?" "No," he said, calmly; "when I went back to the plantation in 1878, I looked into the matter thoroughly. There was nothing creditable on that side."

"To what, then, do you attribute it–was it a direct gift–from heaven,–or from whom did you inherit it?"

"From my Indian grandmother. She was a full-blooded Potomac Indian of unusual powers, and greatly respected on the plantation. She had one child by her white master, and that child was my mother. After that she married a free negro and had several children, but I never knew one of them. She had a little cottage of her own and had the care of all the pickaninnies."

"And your mother? What became of her? Your father was a white man, she was a white and Indian half-breed; where does the negro blood come in?"

"So far as I know," he said, "I have not a drop in my veins, but of course, my children have."

"Think of your autobiographies," I said. "Not one of them tells the truth; you ought to put this in print." "It would not please my people," he said; "and it is not of the least consequence. I was just as much a slave as any of them; that was the only important thing. Of course, all those books were printed before I knew the truth."

"What sort of woman was your mother?" "I do not know, all I remember of her is a pair of big eyes swimming in tears. She was sold away before I could remember, to a plantation six miles off. I never saw her but once. She walked those six miles after dark one night and back again before morning just to look at me as I lay asleep. I opened my eyes and saw her. After the war I could not find her." After Frederick's death I made this statement in print and was surprised to find that what he said was true. His colored friends did not like it.

When I first came to Washington to live I went to Georgetown, its western suburb, which was even then a hotbed of secession. I wanted to win the regard of the people, but soon found it was impossible. I was known as an abolitionist. I had been one there in 1842. The different quarters of Washington in 1878 had different reception days. Georgetown people received on Tuesday. For various reasons I thought it best to receive on Monday. In the most inclement winter I ever knew here, after a deep snowfall, the thermometer fell below zero on the hill, for 15 days, and the sleighing lasted for six weeks. For the first time in modern history, which means since the war, sleds appeared as Christmas presents for the boys and New-year's day fell on a Monday. Of course many gentlemen were among my callers. Frederick Douglass came out with a magnificent pair of horses and a stylish sleigh. The drift opposite my door was five feet deep. The horses floundered and could not turn the sleigh. White, his man, went for a shovel; Frederick held both horses with the reins, trying by soft words and caresses to sooth them. His magnificent white hair stood up straight on his head, as Andrew Jackson's once did, and a long white beard flowed down over his fur coat. Several of my neighbors had called on me, but none of them had ever ventured to come of a reception day. That afternoon, when, if it had not been so cold, they would have had crowded rooms themselves, they dropped in one after another, and after the usual compliments and a cup of coffee each of them turned around at parting to say indifferently: "By the way, Mrs Dall who was the distinguished foreigner at your door this morning? His horses were restive; he stayed a long time soothing them." I was completely puzzled, but after his fine eyes, his olive skin and white hair had been sufficiently dwelt upon, I said, "Can it be possible that you do not know Marshal Douglass?" I can never forget the change in countenance that instantly followed. One lady who had been sure she had seen a member of the Spanish legation could hardly control herself to bid me farewell. I refer to this matter now to show how little those accustomed to the African races and ignorant of Douglass ever suspected his African birth at the first encounter. Many times during the last years of his life and before I knew the truth, I heard people say, "Douglass does not show his negro blood."

Everybody knows by this time, I suppose, that Houghton & Mifflin have just published a one-volume edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin;" but everybody may not know that this is illustrated by 15 full-page illustrations of negro life by Kemble that are worth double the price of the volume. The print is clear and good, but not so large as in my opinion all print should be. The illustrations are however, by far the best that have ever appeared, substantially the same as those in the two volume edition of 1892, but on a larger scale and greatly improved. If as Mr. Chesnutt asserts, Douglass founded the National Era, it is natural to mention this here, for it was for the columns of that paper that "Uncle Tom" was written.

There is a new life of Charlotte Bronte, by Marion Harland, just issued by the Putnams. The likeness attached to the book is a very unfortunate one. It gives an unpleasant impression. I am somewhat astonished that Marion Harland should attach any importance to the recollections or opinions of Sarah de Garre a young woman of 14, whom Mrs Bronte took to Haworth. If living, she must be 93 years old, and should not be trusted against Mrs Gaskell's distinct statement. Here, too, a little bit of reconstruction must be done. In this life, as in all those published since the first edition of Mrs Gaskell's book, it is again asserted that Mrs Gaskell under legal pressure withdrew and retracted her statements concerning Branwell Bronte and Mrs Robinson. Whether true or false, she never retracted one of her statements. It was done for her, under legal pressure, by her husband while she was absent in Italy, and she never heard of it until it was too late to express herself without opposition to his well-meant action. When she heard of it it cost her a long fit of illness, and I have seen a letter by Mrs Gaskell, written to an American friend, in which she stated that never at any cost would she have made such a retraction. Mr Gaskell was a clergyman, timid by nature, entirely without pecuniary resources to meet a suit, and to add to his embarrassment the lady was the daughter of a well-known clergyman of his own church. The volume contains several interesting portraits and valuable items concerning Mr Nicholls and the latter part of Charlotte's life.