Reformer Frederick Douglass Spoke in New Hampshire
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Frederick_Douglass_00HISTORY MATTERS

In the final version of his autobiography, published not long before his death in 1895, Frederick Douglass recalled an early visit to New Hampshire. Now America’s best known abolitionist, Douglass was just 25 years old during his first encounter with citizens of the Granite State. Twenty-one of those years had been spent as a slave. (Continued below)


He bore on his back the marks of the lash, and he likely revealed this fact to his white audience in Pittsfield, NH. He knew white audiences did not want to hear the horrific details of life as a slave, but he told them all the same.

“I’m afraid you do not understand the awful character of these lashes,” Douglass said politely. He explained how an enslaved man could be stripped naked, tied to a tree or post and – for the smallest of infractions -- lashed with a knotted whip almost to the bone. He recited chapter and verse from American laws that allowed slaves to be lashed for riding a horse without permission, for selling goods without permission, for gathering in groups of more than seven without permission, and for walking off the main roads. Slaves, by law, could have an ear removed or be branded with the initials of the “man-stealer” who owned them. Over 3,000,000 slaves in that era were forbidden even to marry.

As he spoke to the Pittsfield audience gathered at the local church in 1842, Douglass himself was a fugitive and technically still enslaved. He had escaped his Maryland “owner” to marry a free black woman named Anne Murray.

He often told of an enslaved couple who, with their children, were sold to separate farms. When the bereaved father begged to say farewell to his family, permission was denied. When the man, propelled by raw emotion, reached out to embrace his loved ones, he was beaten and killed in their presence. Another black man, Douglass related, struck his owner in self defense and was killed, decapitated, and his head displayed as a warning to others. A black woman who taught her child to read was hanged. There were 71 crimes for which a black could be executed, Douglass told his New Hampshire audience, yet only three capital crimes for whites. This was the law of the nation where he lived.

Shunned and lonely

Educated in “the school of slavery,” Frederick Douglass carried these painful lessons to the little New Hampshire town. He had been sent by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to teach the truth about America’s “peculiar institution.”

The Hille family, his New Hampshire sponsors in 1842, greeted him coolly, Douglass reported. Mr. Hille did not even show up to dine with his house guest. The next morning, when Mr. Hilles drove his wife to church, they did not offer the empty seat in their carriage to Douglass, but drove off without him. Douglass walked the two miles to the church alone, and then lectured to those assembled. Mr. Hille was again unable to attend.

During a morning intermission in the service, no one in the congregation spoke to Douglass. At lunch, again, no one spoke to him or offered him a meal. When he found a small hotel nearby, the invited lecturer was told “they did not entertain niggers there.”  Cold, hungry, and despondent, Douglass later wrote, he sat in a small cemetery. Only the New Hampshire dead, Douglass noted, welcomed him here.


First Port City lecture

His reception in Portsmouth in December 1844 was apparently warmer when he addressed the Portsmouth Female Anti-Slavery Society. There appears to be no mention of the visit in local newspapers, only a brief notation in the young orator's extensive travel logs. The following year Douglass published the first of many editions of his explosive autobiography. In it, he named his Maryland “owner,” thus exposing himself as a fugitive slave. In 1846 he fled to the United Kingdom where he lectured continuously, shedding light on the true nature of the heinous practice he called “American Slavery.”

“The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject,” he told enthusiastic British audiences. “Expose slavery and it dies. Light is to slavery as to what the heat of the sun is to the root of the tree.

Douglass devoted his life to exposing slavery and agitating for equality for blacks, through his lectures, his books, and as editor of two abolitionist newspapers. Mockery, harassment, and threats of death did not slow his mission.


Back to New Hampshire

America was in the thick of its gruesome Civil War when Douglass returned to Portsmouth on March 15, 1862. He spoke this time at the 1,000-seat Portsmouth Lyceum, known as “The Temple” on the site of today’s Portsmouth Music Hall. By this time Douglass was a free man, well known for his fiery impassioned rhetoric and as publisher of the anti-slavery North Star newspaper. He was a confidante of President Abraham Lincoln, who often wavered on his convictions toward emancipation, fearing the impact of civil rights on the wounded nation.

Douglass advocated the use of black soldiers in the war. A year after his Portsmouth appearance, he became a recruiter for the now-famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment for blacks, while two of his own sons served in the bloody conflict.


Racist humor

This time the local papers trumpeted Douglass’ arrival. A display ad in the Portsmouth Daily Morning Chronicle announced the evening lecture by “The Eloquent Champion of Freedom.” In order to accommodate the largest crowd, the admission fee was lowered to ten cents. A special notice elsewhere in the paper urged all citizens to attend this very important lecture and predicted a full house.

We have no report of exactly what Douglass said in Portsmouth, only the rambling and disquieting reactions of Morning Chronicle columnist “Uncle Toby.”  In the March 17 edition, the anonymous “UT” quoted passages from Christian scripture suggesting that the Bible was written by God for white readers only. The Bible continually relates whiteness and light to piety and perfection, Uncle Toby argued, and darkness represents evil.  “The way of the wicked is as darkness,” Uncle Toby wrote, implying that good and evil could be measured by skin color.

Uncle Toby, the pen name of a Portsmouth minister and newspaper owner, shows that even the clergy in “liberal” northern states were still sharply divided over issues of slavery and the future of black Americans during the Civil War. Portsmouth’s Congregational North Church, for example, tottered back and forth on the issue, depending upon the whims of the preacher. Churches across the nation split into factions and Douglass did not shrink from verbal attacks on those Christians who sympathized with southern slave holders.

Elsewhere in the Chronicle, the editor pointed out that Uncle Toby’s comments about Douglass were “written mainly for a joke” with no offense intended, and that the columnist “don’t fear a black future for anybody.”

Joke or not, this 1862 discussion flirts with the heart and soul of what Douglass called American Slavery, an immoral and flawed economic policy that evolved into the deep-seated racism that still afflicts the country. Slavery, like indentured servitude, Douglass reminded his 19th century audiences, was initially about cheap labor, not race.  Many nations and races practiced slavery.  But in America, as the nation evolved, successful businessmen became addicted to slavery, even as slavery became identified with skin color. Wealthy businessmen believed they could not operate without it and American laws perpetuated the practice. Seacoast, New Hampshire, where great fortunes were made in international trade and later in the shipbuilding and the cotton industry, was hooked as well.

More than a plaque

The site of the Temple at the corner of Chestnut and Porter streets is marked with one of two dozen brass plaques in the self-guided Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. Other abolitionists, white and black, lectured here too. By the time Douglass spoke in 1862, the tide was turning toward emancipation. His topic, “The Black Man’s Future in the Southern States,” neatly avoided indicting racial discrimination in the North.

The son of an unknown white father and an enslaved black mother, Douglass was able to walk a complex path in a white universe without abandoning his African heritage.  It was a highwire act that demanded respect from people who saw him. What the Portsmouth audience finally witnessed in an era before broadcast media was an intellectual man, cultured, and religious. Once enslaved, he had become financially stable and powerfully influential, and was clearly a man who did not need the protection or guidance of paternalistic whites. He traveled extensively as a writer and statesman in a world that often barred him from coaches, trains, hotels, restaurants, churches, and theatres.  Still he managed to speak to countless thousands of American citizens, converse with abolitionists John Brown and Harriet Tubman, debate southern slave-holders face-to-face, address black prisoners in Washington, DC, and captivate British audiences at formal teas.

A century before Douglas spoke, wealthy Portsmouth merchants housed enslaved servants in attic apartments and buried Africans in a segregated cemetery on Chestnut Street. A century after Douglass spoke in Portsmouth, workers at Pease Air Force Base were still being offered housing from a separate list from the one shown to whites. In 1948 the nearby Rockingham Hotel, just 10 feet from the Portsmouth Music Hall, refused to seat black film actors in their dining room. A Portsmouth barber in the 1950s routinely told African American customers that he did not have “the right tools” to cut their hair. A young worker at a Portsmouth supermarket in the 1960s was fired because, according to his manager, local white customers feared his presence in the store might lead to interracial marriage.

The brass plaque on the brick wall says this is a place worth remembering. It reminds us where a great man once turned a bright light on the roots of racism. It urges us not to forget.  Like Frederick Douglass himself, in every season and in the most unlikely place, it does not flinch from the truth.

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved.



Newspaper Clippings
Frederick Douglass speaks at "The Temple" 
in Portsmouth, NH in 1862


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