Mary Church Terrell

An Appreciation of Frederick Douglass - Undated

Mary Church Terrell
December 31, 1969
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An Appreciation of Frederick Douglass.

(Personal Recollections)

Meeting Frederick Douglass face to face was a great memorable event in anybody’s life. One could not easily forget the circumstances under which she was introduced to such a marvellous personality and such a striking figure as that great man possessed.

I met him for the first time, when as a young girl I was visiting Washington. Just as I was leaving a friend’s house, I saw walking majestically down the street a tall man with broad shoulders looking the picture of one’s ideal of a king. His strong, beneficent, handsome face was surmounted by a shock of snow white hair. Intuitively I knew who it was.

“That’s Frederick Douglass, isn’t it?” I asked my friend. By that time Mr. Douglass had reached us and I was presented to him. Now I rejoice in the fact that I am a Hero Worshiper. To be sure very wise folks who are calm. judicial and philosophical warn you against hero worship. It is not only bad form and poor taste, they tell you, but it is exceedingly foolish they say.. No doubt they are entirely right. But I would not exchange the pure and unadulterated joy, the exaltation, the inspiration and the perfect delight which my hero worship of Frederick Douglass brought to my mind and heart for all the wisdom, philosophy and poise in the world.

From the moment I beheld him for the first time till he walked here among mortals no more not one of his words, not one of his deeds ever caused me to regret the high estimate I had put upon him as a man or the value I placed upon him as a personal friend.

It is difficult for me to write an appreciation of Frederick Douglass without laying myself liable to the charge of exaggeration. He was a perfect Chesterfield in manner. It was hard to believe that a man of such culture and refinement could ever have been a slave with no educational advantages afforded in colleges or schools. He was a brilliant conversationalist. His lish was faultless, although Mr. Douglass was never pedantic. He through such wonderful experiences and could relate to them with such force, such clearness and such charm of manner that it was a delight to listen as he talked. Very few people cared to say much, when Mr. Douglass could be heard.. Although he did not try to occupy the center of the stage in a small company (for he was very modest and as far removed from conceit as a many can well be), if he felt like talking even the most garrulous and irrepressible individual seemed perfectly willing to be silent.

Mr. Douglass was no sedate, long-faced, solemn-looking or solemn-acting personality, I assure you. He enjoyed being in a merry company. hearing jokes and cracking jokes himself. He liked to laugh, when he saw or heard anything really humorous and made no effort to repress his mirth.

On certain afternoons Mr. Douglass was accustomed to invite some of his friends to come to Cedar Hill to play croquet with him, for he enjoyed the game and was very skillful indeed. More than once Judge Terrell and myself have had the pleasure of playing croquet with Mr. Douglass and we cherish the recollections of those delightful afternoons, so full of pleasure and profit as well.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Douglass were very hospitable and enjoyed entertaining their friends in their home. Sunday evenings Judge Terrell and myself were sometimes invited to tea and asked to spend the evening. now I regret that I did not keep a diary those days, so that I might remember some of the wise and witty remarks I have so often heard Mr. Douglass make. Verily during these never-to-be forgotten Sunday evenings there was literally a feast of reason and a flow of soul. I have heard Mr. Douglass sing the Scotch songs of which he was very fond and play several tunes on his violin.

When Mr. Douglass was Commissioner for Haiti at the Worlds Fair in Chicago he was in the habit of setting aside an afternoon which he devoted to sight-seeing with his friends. To me it was not only gratifying but affecting to see the deference paid him by old and young, by bl[ack] and white, by rich and poor, as he walked through the grounds [of] World’s Fair. Sometimes a woman would rush up to him with a child and say “You are the great Frederick Douglass, I am sure.” Then without waiting for a reply she would lift the child up to him and say, “Please shake hands with my little girl (or my little boy), when they grow up, I want them to say they have had the honor of shaking hands with Frederick Douglass.”

After he had been stopped a great many times the afternoon he invited me to go sightseeing with him he said, “Come, lets take a ride on the little elevated road, and get away from the crowd a minute or two, so that we may have a chance to talk.” But we were no sooner seated on the car than a hand stretching from somewhere behind us tried to touch Mr. Douglass on the shoulder. A man, and he was a very distinguished-looking individual, had reached clear over the seat between himself and Mr. Douglass, so that he might shake hands with him.

“Well, we’ll take a ride on the Ferris wheel,” said my host,. “We’ll be swinging between heaven and earth in a cage, and no one can interrupt us then.” But just as Mr. Douglass stepped into the cage three or four people saluted him. “Its no use”, he said, “I give it up.”

It is safe to say that at the World’s Fair no one human being received more homage that was paid to Frederick Douglass.

It is a great temptation to talk about Frederick Douglass as an orator. But I will not yield to it, because there are many others who can discuss this phase of his life much better than I can. But I must relate an incident which shows how modest and free from pretension he was.

One evening at the Bethel Literary and Historical Society here in Washington, which was founded by the way, by Bishop Payne) Mr. Douglass was called upon suddenly to speak on a paper which he had been read. He spoke with surpassing eloquence. After the meeting had adjourned, I rushed up to him and said, “Mr. Douglass, woman that I am, I would give ten years of my life, if I could speak extemporaneously as brilliantly as you can.” “That speech was not extemporaneous”, he replied, “It mu [line is cut off] been,” I insisted. “For you did not know you were to be called upon. Nobody knew you were coming to night.”

“Well”, said Mr. Douglass, “I will have to explain what I mean by relating something to Wendell Phillips, who had spoken eloquently when suddenly called upon to talk at a public meeting once said to me. I marveled at the ease with which Mr. Phillips spoke extemporaneously and told him so.

“Do you think that was extemporaneous, Frederick?” he asked me with just a suspicion of sarcasm in his tone, “Well, I assure you it was not. I have been thinking out that speech for fifty years.’ And that is my reply to you.” said Mr. Douglas, “I have been thinking about that speech I made to night for fifty years.

A long time ago on of Mr. Douglass’s sons, Major Charles Douglass, now deceased, bought a large plot of land about seven miles from Annapolis, Md. directly on the Chesapeake Bay which he intended to convert into a summer resort. Among the number invited to look at the section and purchase lots were Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dr. John R. Francis, a well-known physician, Mr. Terrell and myself. All of these have passed into the Great Beyond except my husband and myself.

Mr. Douglass selected a corner lot on the road in front of the Bay and ask- me to buy the lot next to him. It will surprise no one to learn that I cheerfully complied with this request.

The almost insurmountable obstacles which young colored people of high aspirations and genuine talent had to overcome in this prejudice-ridden country affected and pained Mr. Douglass very much, for he had a kind and tender heart.

The first time I ever heard of Paul Dunbar was in Frederick Douglass’s study one beautiful afternoon. He referred with deep feeling to the hard conditions which confronted the young poet and read me the Rainy Day. When Mr. Douglass was reading the second stanza his voice broke and tears trickled down his cheeks. I learned afterward that Mr. Douglass had done a a great deal to encourage Paul and had helped him personally to some extent.

Women not only of this country but all over the world owe a debt of gratitude to Frederick Douglass for his earnest and forceful support of Woman Suffrage. At Seneca Falls New York in 1848 a group of women and a few men gathered to demand equal political suffrage for women for the first time in the history of this country. Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was in despair, because she could induce a dingle man or woman to second the motion for equal political suffrage which she introduced. Then it was that Frederick Douglass but a few years out of bondage, a runaway slave arose in that meeting of cultured, progressive white people and with eloquence which carried the audience by storm seconded the motion himself. When the fiftieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls meeting was observed the honor and privilege or representing Frederick Douglass was conferred upon me.

A portion of the last day of this great man’s life was spent in attending the convention of the National Council of Women which met here. As Mr. Douglass entered the hall, he was spied by Susan B. Anthony, Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, Mrs. May Wright Sewall and others and the proceedings of an important business meeting were immediately stopped. A motion was made to escort Mr. Douglass to the stage. And a royal Chautauqua salute was given him as soon as he appeared. When the applause subsided, Mr. Douglass made an eloquent talk in behalf of the recognition of women and seemed appeared perfect health

After the meeting I congratulated him on his speech and, as we walked down the street together, he invited me to lunch with him. Unfortunately for myself I was not feeling well and declined the invitation. How often have I regretted it. Little did I think I would never see him alive again. It seems to me I can see him now, as he walked away erect and apparently strong, wearing a light sombrero which was very becoming to him and in which he looked so distinguished that few passed him without turning around to take a second glance.

About seven oclock that evening Mr. Walter Hayson an Oberlin graduate and a valuable teacher in the High School who has since passed away came to tell me that Mr. Douglass had been suddenly stricken, while relating to Mrs. Douglass the courtesies shown him by the National Council of Women and had gone to his reward.

In the New York Age for Thursday, February 18, 1897 this excert from the Washington news appears: “About a month ago Jan. 12, 1897 Mrs. Mary Church Terrell conceived the idea that the colored children of this community ought to celebrate in a fitting manner the day on which Frederick Douglass was said to be born. (Mr. Douglass did not know the date of his birth. He said he was born in February, so he chose St. Valentine’s Day for his birthday.) In her capacity as a member of the Board of education she introduced a resolution to this effect at its regular meeting, which resolution was unanimously adopted. Through her efforts, and through her [illegible] of her foresight, the 14th day of February will hereafter be known in our school system as “Douglass Day.”

We have been well-acquainted with Frederick Douglass and to have been honored with his friendship I consider one of the most valued possessions and cherished memories of my life.

Terrell, Mary Church. Undated. “An Appreciation of Frederick Douglass." Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress.