Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn

Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn


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"In Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn, Theodore Hamm persuasively and passionately makes the case that the borough (and former city) became a powerful forum for Douglass's abolitionist agenda in the mid-19th century after he escaped slavery in 1838."
New York Times

"Insight into the remarkable life of a remarkable man. [Frederick] Douglass in Brooklyn shows how the great author and agitator associated with radicals—and he associated with the president of the United States. A fine book."
Errol Louis, host of NY1's Road to City Hall

"A collection of rousing 19th-century speeches on freedom and humanity. The eloquent orator Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) delivered eight impressive speeches in Brooklyn, New York, 'far from a bastion of abolitionist support,' which, even as late as 1886, had only a small black population...Editor Hamm provides helpful introductions and notes and gives illuminating context and perspective by including their coverage in the 'virulently proslavery' Brooklyn Eagle...Covering one speech, the Eagle defended its claim of black inferiority by asserting, 'the abject submission of a race who are content to be enslaved when there is an opportunity to be free, gives the best evidence that they are fulfilling the destiny which Providence marked out for them.' Proof that Douglass' speeches, responding to the historical exigencies of his time, amply bear rereading today."
Kirkus Reviews

"Although he never lived in Brooklyn, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had many friends and allies who did. Hamm has collected Douglass's searing antislavery speeches (and denunciations of him by the pro-slavery newspaper the Brooklyn Eagle ) delivered at Brooklyn locales during the mid-19th century."
Publishers Weekly , A notable African-American Title

"This timely volume [presents] Douglass' towering voice in a way that sounds anything but dated."
Philadelphia Tribune

"Though he never lived there, Frederick Douglass and the city of Brooklyn engaged in a profound repartee in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the disagreements between the two parties revealing the backward views of a borough that was much less progressive than it liked to think...Hamm...[illuminates] the complexities of a city and a figure at the vanguard of change."
Village Voice

This volume compiles original source material that illustrates the complex relationship between Frederick Douglass and the city of Brooklyn. Most prominent are the speeches the abolitionist gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Plymouth Church, and other leading Brooklyn institutions. Whether discussing the politics of the Civil War or recounting his relationships with Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, Douglass's towering voice sounds anything but dated. An introductory essay examines the intricate ties between Douglass and Brooklyn abolitionists, while brief chapter introductions and annotations fill in the historical context.

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was an abolitionist leader, spokesman for racial equality, and defender of women's rights. He was born into slavery in Maryland and learned to read and write around age twelve, and it was through this that his ideological opposition to slavery began to take shape. He successfully escaped bondage in 1838. In 1845, he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave , which became a best seller in the US and was translated into several languages. He went on to advise President Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers during the Civil War and continued to work for equality until his death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617754852
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. His previous books include Rebel and a Cause , The New Blue Media , and Pieces of a Decade (coedited with Williams Cole). Hamm's writings about New York City history and politics have appeared recently in the Village Voice , Vice News , the New York Daily News , and Jacobin. He lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.


Tuckahoe, Maryland

Date of Birth:


Date of Death:

February 20, 1895

Place of Death:

Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn

By Frederick Douglass, Theodore Hamm

Akashic Books

Copyright © 2017 Theodore Hamm's introduction, annotations, and additional text
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61775-485-2


Mr. Douglass has been in the habit of carrying his audiences by storm. His peculiar wit, sarcasm, drollery, dramatic intensity, and, more than all, his noble moral earnestness, set in strong relief by an indefinable and touching sadness of tone and mien, [are] apparent [in] all his speeches. Though he makes his listeners alternately cheer, laugh, and weep, they inevitably carry away with them, as the chief impression of the evening, not the ornament or side-play, but the logical frame-work and solid sense of the discourse. Frederick Douglass, beginning his life as a bond-slave, will leave behind him an honest fame as one of the chief orators of his day and generation.

Brooklyn's Theodore Tilton, Independent, February 12, 1863

Upon Frederick Douglass's death in 1895, the New York Tribune — a newspaper founded by a leading abolitionist, Horace Greeley — dug up a chestnut from a half-century earlier. In 1846, Douglass had delivered a speech at a temperance gathering in London's Covent Garden Theatre. There he told an audience that included both British royalty and US ministers that while temperance was indeed a worthy cause, the abolition of slavery was more important. After Douglass's address, the Tribune said, among those who sought to congratulate the speaker was an "eminent Brooklyn divine." Never one to mince words, Douglass rejected the overture. He told the minister, "Sir, were we to have met under similar circumstances in Brooklyn, you would never have ventured to take my hand, and you shall not do it here."

Beyond illustrating Douglass's resolute character, the anecdote also yields insight into Brooklyn's race relations in the decades before the Civil War. Despite the presence of prominent white abolitionists, as well as that of vocal African Americans, Brooklyn was far from a haven of black equality. In the wake of the London meeting, Douglass engaged in a high-profile war of words in print with Reverend Samuel Hanson Cox, the prominent pastor of Brooklyn's First Presbyterian Church. Though an abolitionist, Cox was outraged that Douglass had raised the issue of slavery at the temperance convention. In the New York Evangelist, a Presbyterian weekly newspaper, Cox called Douglass's actions a "perversion" of the meeting's intent and "abominable!" In William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, an influential abolitionist paper from Boston, Douglass labeled Cox a "sham" opponent of slavery. Audiences across the Northeast thus became aware of Brooklyn's contested racial terrain.

Frederick Douglass never lived in Brooklyn, but his visits to the "City of Churches" stirred both enthusiasm and controversy. During the Civil War era many of his key friends and allies — including Henry Ward Beecher, Theodore Tilton, Lewis Tappan, James and Elizabeth Gloucester, James McCune Smith, and William J. Wilson (a.k.a. "Ethiop") — called Brooklyn home. Douglass had close ties to three publications with Brooklyn roots: the Ram's Horn (1847–1849), the Anglo-African (1859–1865), and the Independent (1860s). Meanwhile, his own publications, the North Star and Frederick Douglass' Paper, featured regular Brooklyn correspondents, most notably Ethiop. Douglass was a close friend of John Brown, and the pages of the Anglo-African noted the former's stop in Brooklyn — at the home of Elizabeth Gloucester — en route to a pivotal Harpers Ferry planning meeting in late August 1859. Theodore Tilton, who rose to prominence in his defense of Brown in the Independent, would become one of Douglass's closest confidants during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Both in person and print, Douglass was a powerful presence in Brooklyn — and the varied reactions to his positions on abolition and black equality thus illustrate the ways in which those issues shaped the city in its formative decades. At African American churches like Reverend James N. Gloucester's Siloam Presbyterian or James Morris Williams's Bridge Street AME, or at white abolitionist strongholds like Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church, the gifted orator received a hero's welcome. But in the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a conservative Democratic organ during the Civil War, Douglass was often subjected to racist ridicule. Douglass had garnered a more friendly reception from Walt Whitman, during the latter's short stints as editor of both the Eagle and the Brooklyn Daily Times. Even so, Whitman's position on racial issues — antislavery but not proequality — reflected a notable current of local sentiment. Like New York City, Brooklyn (its own city until 1898) had strong economic ties to Southern slavery, making the place a racial minefield. But with the help of his steadfast allies, Douglass navigated it safely.

Twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey first became acquainted with New York abolitionists in September 1838. Born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around February 1818, Bailey came of age in Baltimore, where he learned to read and soon inspired his peers to do the same; after a few unsuccessful attempts to escape, he fled safely to New York via trains and ferries while carrying the identification papers of a free black seaman. Once in Manhattan, Bailey sought out David Ruggles, a leading African American conductor of the Underground Railroad. He informed Ruggles of his desire to marry his fiancée, Anna Murray, who would soon join him in New York; soon thereafter, Reverend James W.C. Pennington came from Brooklyn to perform the wedding at Ruggles's home on Lispenard Street. (Thus began a long alliance between the soon-to-be Douglass and Pennington — who would preside over Shiloh Presbyterian, an abolitionist stronghold on Prince Street in Manhattan.) From New York, Frederick and Anna traveled via boat to Newport, Rhode Island, then by stagecoach to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they set up shop and became the Douglass family. In the summer of 1841, Douglass first met William Lloyd Garrison, who helped launch his career as a public figure. That fall, the family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, and it was there that Douglass wrote the book that would build his international reputation, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society published in 1845.

Brooklyn was far from a bastion of abolitionist support in the mid-1840s. Many early Kings County residents had owned slaves, and after Brooklyn officially became a city in 1834, local merchants competed with their counterparts across the East River for the trade in Southern products. Indeed, so widespread was the support for slavery in Brooklyn that in 1839 David Ruggles called the city "the Savannah of New York." Beginning in May 1842, Douglass spoke at the annual meetings of the Garrison-led American Anti-Slavery Society in Manhattan, which usually took place at the Broadway Tabernacle, the church where the Tappan brothers held sway. Beyond abolitionist circles, Douglass was not a household name in the New York area until his autobiography came out — and even then Brooklyn audiences more likely read about him in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune (which published a front-page review by Margaret Fuller in June 1845) than in any local publication. Douglass, in turn, spent the next two years touring Ireland and England. Among his fellow speakers at the August 1846 temperance convention in London was Henry Ward Beecher, the charismatic Congregationalist minister who moved the following year from Indiana to Brooklyn, where he became the first pastor of Plymouth Church. Beecher's arrival meant that Douglass and his fellow abolitionists in Brooklyn now had a much more sympathetic ally than Samuel Cox.

Upon his return from England in the spring of 1847, Douglass informed his colleagues that he planned to start his own publication. He was still based in Lynn, but sought independence from Garrison, who presided over Boston-area abolitionists. Throughout 1847, various reports placed Douglass's publication in different locations, including Lynn, Cleveland, and Rochester, its eventual home. One of the earliest announcements came from Walt Whitman, who had been editing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for just over a year. In early June of 1847, Whitman noted:

Fred. Douglass, the runaway slave, having received the necessary subscriptions and contributions for a press etc., from Scotland principally, is about to publish an anti-slavery paper in Lynn, Mass. He will of course create a great sensation in the regions around shoe-dom. A Sunday paper says that Lynn and the neighboring peninsula of Nahant have heretofore mainly depended for excitement on the appearance of the sea serpent, whose visits of late years have been singularly irregular. Douglass will prove a first-rate substitute for the monster.

Playful but clearly supportive, Whitman's statement was based on word that spread in the wake of the May annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society at the Broadway Tabernacle, where Douglass had spoken. There is no record of the two figures formally meeting one another, but at the time Whitman and Douglass were traveling in similar circles — and the former's opposition to slavery would cause him to lose his job at the Eagle in early 1848.

As he prepared to launch his own paper, Douglass also became involved with the Ram's Horn, which was published by Willis Hodges, a leading figure in the black community in Williamsburgh (as it was spelled at the time), which would not become part of Brooklyn until 1855. The Ram's Horn debuted in January 1847, with Thomas Van Rensselaer, a former slave turned Manhattan restaurateur, as its editor. Hodges, who became close friends with John Brown, had owned a small grocery stand near the ferry in Williamsburgh, and his brother William was also a leading minister in the area. After the May meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass wrote to van Rensselaer, encouraging him to "Blow away on your 'Ram's Horn'! Its wild, rough, uncultivated notes may grate harshly on the ear of [the] refined ... but sure I am that its voice will be pleasurable to the slave, and terrible to the slaveholder." In early August 1847, the paper announced that Douglass had joined the masthead as an assistant editor; Sydney Howard Gay, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard (also based in Manhattan), confirmed that report, adding that Douglass would also serve as a regular contributor to the Standard. Douglass, in turn, asked Gay to look into the Horn's finances, in order to make sure he wouldn't incur any debts. For the next several months, Douglass remained affiliated with the Ram's Horn.

In the fall of 1847, African American audiences on both sides of the East River could thus read a weekly paper that featured Frederick Douglass on its masthead. The banner across page one of the only extant copy of the Ram's Horn — dated November 5, 1847 — lists Van Rensselaer and Douglass as editors, placing their names on opposite sides of the paper's motto: We are Menand therefore interested in whatever concerns Men. It's not clear what Douglass actually contributed to this (or any other) issue, but the editorial page carried his name in the top left-hand corner. Under it was a signed editorial from Willis Hodges encouraging readers to take interest in the "Gerrit Smith Lands." Smith was a prominent abolitionist from Western New York who encouraged blacks (and white abolitionists) to become farmers on the 120,000 acres he donated to a community called "Timbuctoo" in North Elba, near Lake Placid. In the fall of 1848, Hodges became one of several New York City-area migrants to Timbuctoo, where fellow resident John Brown (a Ram's Horn contributor) helped him set up shop. Gerrit Smith, meanwhile, would become a pivotal supporter of both Douglass's own paper as well as Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1849, Van Rensselaer moved the Ram's Horn to Philadelphia, where it fizzled out a year later.

That same November 1847 issue of the Ram's Horn also carried an announcement informing readers that contrary to recent reports, Douglass planned to publish his own paper in Rochester, not Cleveland. One month later, the North Star indeed made its debut from the city on the banks of Lake Ontario that Douglass would call home for the next twenty-three years. In his inaugural statement, Douglass declared, "It has long been our anxious wish to see ... [a paper] under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression." That jab seemed directed at Garrison and the Liberator, because it didn't apply to the Ram's Horn (or other preceding black-edited newspapers). But in order to sustain the North Star, Douglass needed to raise a steady stream of funds, via both donations and subscriptions. While Gerrit Smith was a steady source of financial support, according to biographer William McFeely, over the next few years, "Everywhere he went, Douglass urged his listeners to subscribe." Such efforts brought him down to New York City and eventually to Brooklyn.

On April 16, 1849, Douglass made his first public appearance in Brooklyn, at Reverend James N. Gloucester's Siloam Presbyterian Church on Myrtle Avenue at the edge of what is now Downtown Brooklyn. According to the Ram's Horn's report (which Douglass reprinted in his paper), the speaker had a dual purpose: "to lecture us on the subject of improvement, and [to] procure subscribers for the North Star." In his own account, Douglass observed that Siloam's location at that time was a "beautiful and commodious church under the pastoral care of Mr. Gloucester"; he also noted that after his talk, Van Rensselaer (with whom he stayed) made a "warm and vigorous appeal for the North Star." Both reports commended Reverend Gloucester and his Manhattan counterpart, Reverend Pennington, for allowing Douglass to use their churches without charging admission, which stood in contrast to Zion AME in lower Manhattan. Like Pennington, Gloucester remained a prominent figure in New York abolitionism. In February 1858, he and his wife Elizabeth, a savvy businesswoman who helped finance the construction of Siloam's first full church, would host John Brown for a week at their home in Downtown Brooklyn. The black community's attempts to build its future in the fast-growing city would be chronicled first in the pages of the North Star, where Douglass regularly printed letters from correspondents based elsewhere. Joseph C. Holly, a shoemaker by trade, was the paper's man in Brooklyn. In a May 1849 dispatch, Holly reported about an abolitionist gathering at which the mention of Douglass's name brought forth a "most rapturous applause." That July, Father Theobald Mathew, a leading temperance advocate from Ireland, made a high-profile visit to Brooklyn. As Holly noted in the North Star, Mathew, who had met with Douglass in Cork a few years earlier, now "took him by the hand in Brooklyn" — a notable gesture of solidarity in an increasingly hostile racial climate. In 1851, the annual May meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society had to be moved out of Manhattan because of increasing antiabolitionist violence, and organizers quickly found that they were not welcome in Brooklyn, either. (The gathering took place in Syracuse.) That summer, the North Star became Frederick Douglass' Paper, which brought the editor closer to Gerrit Smith (who bankrolled the publication), a move that caused a hostile split between Douglass and Garrison.

In the pages of Frederick Douglass' Paper, Brooklyn correspondents assumed a more prominent role. In April 1852, James N. Still, a self-employed tailor who used the pen name "Observer," highlighted the success of a recent series of talks in Brooklyn by Reverend Pennington as well as Beecher's growing prominence in local abolitionist circles. In Still's view, such efforts suggested that the "time will come" soon when Douglass would join that network of speakers in the area. Though Brooklyn was announced on his tour itinerary in early 1855, the event never happened, and Douglass's first widely publicized lecture would not take place in the city until 1859. Yet as recorded by his paper's most prolific Brooklyn correspondent, William "Ethiop" Wilson, Douglass made well-received visits to Brooklyn in the middle of the decade. Included in the more than fifty letters that the editor would publish from Ethiop, a school principal in Weeksville, was mention of Douglass's February 1855 visit to Plymouth Church. He attended with Lewis Tappan, now a member of Beecher's congregation, and the two sat together in Tappan's centrally located pew. According to Ethiop, Douglass was "the observed of all observers, and the lion of the occasion," disrupting the "pious devotions" of the church service. Beecher's name had shown up frequently, and favorably, in Douglass's publications for the preceding seven years, and the editor also mentioned that he had visited Plymouth at least one other time, in May 1854.


Excerpted from Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn by Frederick Douglass, Theodore Hamm. Copyright © 2017 Theodore Hamm's introduction, annotations, and additional text. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Note from Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, 7,
Introduction, 9,
Chapter 1: Self-Made Men Williamsburgh, with Walt Whitman, January 1859, 33,
Chapter 2: The Black Man and the War Bridge Street AME, February 1863, 42,
Chapter 3: What Shall Be Done with the Negro? Brooklyn Academy of Music, May 1863, 54,
Chapter 4: Emancipation Jubilee Bedford-Stuyvesant, August 1865, 82,
Chapter 5: The Assassination and Its Lessons Brooklyn Academy of Music, January 1866, 89,
Chapter 6: Sources of Danger to the Republic Plymouth Church, December 1866, 123,
Chapter 7: John Brown's Heroic Character Clinton Street Baptist Church, May 1886, 159,
Chapter 8: Lincoln's Godlike Nature Crown Heights, February 1893, 200,
Postscript, 220,
Acknowledgments, 223,

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