Frederick Douglass’s fluid, changeable sense of his own life story is reflected in the many conflicting accounts he gave of key events and relationships during his journey from slavery to freedom. Nevertheless, when these differing self-presentations are put side by side and consideration is given individually to their rhetorical strategies and historical moment, what emerges is a fascinating collage of Robert S. Levine’s elusive subject. The Lives of Frederick Douglass is revisionist biography at its best, offering new perspectives on Douglass the social reformer, orator, and writer. In this brief excerpt from the book, Levine looks at how Douglass was honored after he died.
On February 20, 1895, Douglass gave a speech to the National Council of Women in Washington, DC. A long-standing supporter of women’s rights ever since he had at- tended the epochal Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848, he was escorted to the speaker’s platform by Susan B. Anthony. When he returned to his home in Anacostia later that day, he began to imitate some of the meeting’s speeches for his wife, Helen, and then dropped to his knees in pain. According to the Unitarian minister and Douglass biographer Frederick May Holland, who published a tribute to Douglass two weeks after his death, “his wife thought it was only such mimicry as had always been his delight.” But Douglass was suffering from cardiac arrest, and he died, in effect, in the midst of giving a speech.
A memorial service was held several days later at the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, where Douglass’s body lay in state in an open casket and was viewed by thousands of mourners, including many of Washington’s African American children. The black schools of the city’s segregated school system canceled classes that day in honor of Douglass; the service itself was attended by Supreme Court Justice John Marshal Harlan, Senators George Hoar and John Sherman, the faculty of Howard University, family, friends, and hundreds of admirers. In his eulogy to Douglass, the pastor of the church, Reverend J. T. Jenifer, shared his vision of Douglass’s arrival in heaven:
On Wednesday, February 20, there was caused a great commotion in the Spirit World. There it was announced, “Frederick Douglass has come.” There gathered about him others, Peter Landy, William Lloyd Garrison, William Wilberforce, Daniel O’Connell . . . John Brown, Lewis Hayden, Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, Charles Sumner, Abraham Lincoln . . . with many heroes prominent in the anti-slavery conflict.
Garrison and Brown inquired, “Well, Frederick, how is it in the world from which you just came? What are the results of freedom for which we all struggled?” Douglass replied, “The victory has been achieved; slaves freed and enfranchised, and made citizens. They have schools, colleges, and great churches. Two millions of children in school, and sixty thousand teachers instructing them. They have their own press, paper and periodicals. They have accumulated since freedom $200,000,000, and my people are advancing along every line and are rising generally.
The angels heard the tidings, took down their harps, and sang, “Alleluia, Alleluia, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”
Jenifer’s eulogy was followed by a tribute from Susan B. Anthony, who included in her remarks the praise sent by Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “As an orator, writer and editor, Douglass holds an honored place among the gifted men of his day.” In 1869, Anthony and Stanton had turned on Douglass during the debates on the Fifteenth Amendment for refusing to withhold his support for a bill that granted black men, but not white women, the franchise. In their anger, they betrayed their racism at a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, which Douglass attended. According to the proceedings, Stanton remarked that “she did not believe in allowing ignorant negroes and foreigners to make laws for her to obey,” and Anthony similarly stated that “if intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.” From Douglass’s point of view, by supporting the Fifteenth Amendment he was defending the idea that black men were men, and thus should have the legal rights ac- corded “men” in the nation’s legal documents. As Angela Y. Davis observes, at a time that saw an upsurge of anti-black violence in the South, Douglass believed that “Black people’s need for electoral power was more urgent than that of middle-class white women.” The late 1860s conflict between Douglass and women reformers, with whom he had been aligned since the 1840s, was significant, but Douglass remained true to his convictions that women should have the same rights as men, and by the 1880s he had restored his friendships with Anthony and Stanton and was once again an invited speaker at the major women’s rights meetings in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC. “I am a radical woman suffrage man,” he declared in 1888 before the New England Woman Suffrage Association; and he died hours after speaking to women’s rights advocates at the invitation of Anthony.
A number of other religious and cultural leaders offered eulogies to Douglass at Washington’s Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church. His body was then taken by train to Rochester for a second memorial service, where the Reverend W. C. Gannett of Rochester’s First Unitarian Church proposed building a monument to Douglass to stand with the city’s monument to Lincoln. The monument would be unveiled just a few years later. Tribute followed tribute, and at the end of the service, Douglass was buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery beside his first wife, Anna, and daughter Annie.
Douglass had been writing and speaking about his life for over fifty years, often in response to how others had represented him. Beginning with his death, the lives of Douglass would be imagined by those who could not be challenged, refuted, or supplemented by the man himself. That process began with the memorial services. Would he have appreciated Jenifer’s heavenly vision of Douglass reporting simultaneously to John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison? We’ll never know. But Douglass surely would have been pleased that many of the memorial tributes of 1895 (which were collected by Helen Pitts Douglass for her 1897 In Memoriam: Frederick Douglass) drew on the 1881/1892 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. At the memorial gathering at Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church, for example, the Reverend J. E. Rankin, president of Howard University, referred to Douglass’s account of his 1877 visit to Thomas Auld: “And if we turn from his public life to his private career, what more striking and unusual scene, save perhaps Joseph’s forgiveness of his brethren, ever was introduced into the lot of man than his visit to his old and dying master, so many years after his escape from bondage? Was there ever an experience more pathetic? Was there ever forgiveness more generous?” Two weeks later, at a memorial service held at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, the Reverend Francis J. Grimké commented extensively on his recent rereading of Life and Times: “In looking back over this life, in studying it carefully, as he himself has written it out, the first thing that impresses us, and that gives promise that something may yet come out of it, is his rebellion against the system under which he was born.” By learning to read and write, Grimké says, Douglass “wrote his own emancipation proclamation” and then impelled Lincoln to produce one for the nation. Grimké asserts that “it was due largely to the influence of Mr. Douglass, that the colored man was allowed to shoulder his musket and strike a blow for his own freedom and for the preservation of the Union.” For those who might be skeptical about Douglass’s impact on Lincoln and the Civil War, Grimké refers them to “chapter eleventh of his Life, entitled ‘Secession and War.’ ” In the course of his tribute, Grimké allows that Douglass has some detractors who regard him as “selfish,” but he defends Douglass from this “base insinuation” by stating that he has “read his life carefully” and sees nothing that would “justify such an accusation.” If anything, he insists, “we get a true insight into the spirit which animated him during his long and eventful life, as well as the motives which prompted him to make a record of that life.” The Reverend Alexander Crummell also reflected on Life and Times in a eulogy delivered right after Grimké’s. “In reading his biography,” Crummell observes, “you will see this rich strata of poetic gold cropping out all along through his pages.” Like Garrison in 1845, he is particularly taken by Douglass’s “fine apostrophe to the gallant ships floating down the Chesapeake,” which Douglass included in all versions of his autobiography. Crummell paused in his eulogy to read that passage aloud to the assembly.
“When God finishes a life, it is as though he had written a book,” Rankin remarked at the second memorial service in Washington. Just a few years before his death, Douglass finished a book, the expanded second edition of Life and Times. By the time of his death, that book for many of his admirers had become the definitive life of Douglass, which was exactly what Douglass had hoped for. Published during his lifetime, it was to some extent a posthumous life, too, a vision of his “several lives as one” shaped by a man who for good reason, given his age, increasingly imagined himself as dead.