• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass’s last years

Following the Civil War, the United States moved into its darkest hour. Despite the intense level of sacrifice the country endured to ensure freedom for all Americans, it took very little time for all that sacrifice to be done away with before it ever had a chance to take root, much less grow and bear fruit. As Frederick Douglass watched this chain of events play out, his heart was heavy. Though he felt a great deal of despair, he also continued to nurture hope.

In his position as a US Marshall for the District of Columbia, Douglass had the honor of escorting both the incoming (James A. Garfield) and outgoing (Rutherford B. Hayes) presidents during the inauguration ceremony.

“I deemed the event highly important as a new circumstance in my career,

as a new recognition of my class and as a new step in the progress of the nation.”

Following Garfield's inauguration, the president sought Douglass’s advice regarding the idea of Negroes becoming statesmen. The hoped-for event, unfortunately, found itself on the back burner following Garfield's assassination. With a heavy heart, Douglass witnessed the mob violence that now began to replace the equal rights efforts begun during Reconstruction.

“The country has not quite survived the effects and influence of its great war for existence.

The serpent has been wounded, but not killed.”

During this time, Douglass’s voice was continuously heard, due to the prominent governmental positions he held. He continued to fight hard for civil rights, gave speeches and wrote letters of influence.

In 1881, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass as counsel general and minister resident in Haiti. Harrison considered him the perfect choice due to Douglass’s keen understanding of the small, impoverished nation. The United States sought to establish a naval base on Haiti’s shore and rather than strong-arm the small nation, Harrison believed Douglass had the knack to help the Haitian people understand the benefit the base would bring to them, as well as the U.S.

Douglass proved Harrison's decision to be a wise one. Remaining true to his personal convictions, Douglass was unswayed by bad press, politicians, or public opinion due to being a veteran combatant of prejudice, lies and scandals. He had a deep respect for the Haitian leaders and citizens because a large majority of them had either been slaves or were descendants of slaves. His relationship with the citizens of Haiti resulted in the governor appointing Douglass to be commissioner of the Haitian exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago during 1892. Douglass considered the appointment a great honor.

In the late 1800s, the South was ravaged by violent mobs who unleashed a reign of terror against the Negroes. Lynching became the law of the land in the South as southern citizens became judge, jury and executioner, resulting in scores of innocent Negroes being murdered.

The Mason-Dixon Line did little to rein in the perpetrated violence. Northern residents began to believe the lies fed them by southern governmental leaders and the press who preached about Negroes being unfit for citizenship and undeserving of the rights enjoyed by American citizens; most especially the right to vote.

From within this violent indignation came the loud bellow of an angry black lion. Filled with rage at what he saw, Frederick Douglass roared and shook his mane in a manner which had never been seen before. He immediately declared emancipation to be a fraud and demanded to know what had happened to justice and the Constitution. He firmly declared that if the law was obeyed, the nation’s ills would soon heal themselves. Unfortunately, while Douglass endeavored to make the truth known, through speeches he gave and examples he set; southern legislatures, northern sentiments and the country’s newspapers continued to endorse mob violence in an effort to strip the Negroes of the right to vote.

As Douglass moved into his last years, a new voice began to be heard above the crowd which caught his ear. Ida B. Wells, a journalist from Memphis, Tennessee, had picked up the torch Douglass faithfully carried for so many years. She now made it her personal cause to expose the American people to the ghastly reality of these epidemic lynchings. As they began to correspond, Douglass and Wells joined forces to create a pamphlet regarding racism. This was later distributed at the exposition in Chicago. Her young, fresh voice reassured the elderly Douglass his cause would be carried into the future.

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After attending the Women’s Council meeting on February 20, 1895, Douglass returned home to Cedar Hill and enjoyed dinner with Helen. Later that evening, he suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died. Douglass’s death stunned the nation. Shortly thereafter, his wife, children and grandchildren gathered at Cedar Hill to extend a tearful goodbye to the family patriarch.

Douglass’s casket lay in state at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C., guarded by the Sons of Veterans. Thousands of mourners quickly flocked to the church to offer their condolences. Numerous political figures were in attendance during the funeral. Susan B. Anthony read a letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Senator B. H. Bruce and Dr. Charles Burleigh Purvis were numbered among the pallbearers. Local children and employees were given the day off as schools and businesses closed. Douglass’s obituary was published in papers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Crowds lined the streets to watch as Douglass’s casket was moved from the church to the train station for the trip to Rochester, New York. Upon arrival, Douglass again lay in state at City Hall. A funeral service was conducted at Central Church with family and friends in attendance prior to burial next to Anna at Mount Hope Cemetery.

Following Douglass’s death, his widow Helen spent her remaining years creating a memorial to the beloved civil rights leader at Cedar Hill. His personal possessions, papers and books were carefully preserved. The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs took over caring for the home. Later, the National Parks Service assumed the responsibility. After she died, Helen was laid to rest beside her husband.

Frederick Douglass left an example for both men and women of all races to emulate. A man of decisions, when he made his mind up to do something, he found a way to make it happen.

  • Though slaves were forbidden to learn to read, Douglass found a way to learn because he sensed that literacy was the path to freedom.

  • As a young adult fed up with the hardships of slavery, he determined in his heart to be freed from its chains and successfully escaped.

  • In an effort to let the truth be known, he endangered his life by writing his autobiography.

  • After fleeing to England on the counsel of numerous friends, Douglass at first pondered the idea of transplanting his family there as well so they could enjoy a peaceful life, equal in status to the British citizens. However, much as Moses of the Bible, Douglass heard the cry of his people and returned to “Egypt” to fulfill the role God placed upon him.

History has seen many individuals who come to the forefront, only to reveal the destruction and abhorrence that can come from one with a heart filled with hate, evil and/or narcissistic pride. Douglass’s life, on the other hand, exemplified the effect one man can have when he purposes in his heart to change the world for good. Frederick Douglass was, and still is, a great man among men and a true American hero.

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Contemplating my life as a whole, I have to say that, although it has at times been dark and stormy, and I have met with hardships from which other men have been exempted; yet my life has in many respects been remarkably full of sunshine and joy.

Frederick Douglass

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