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Reformer Frederick Douglass Spoke in New Hampshire

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.

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