Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The day Frederick Douglass came to town

While researching the antislavery movement in New Hampshire, I ran across Frederick Douglass’s account of his visit to Pittsfield, N.H., in 1842. It is in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the last of his three volumes of autobiography. He was about 24 years old in 1842, had escaped slavery in Maryland and was just beginning his career as a paid orator for the abolition cause.

In this post and the next, I turn the floor over to Douglass to tell the story of this trip to New Hampshire, one of several he would make:

Nathaniel Peabody Rogers,
Concord's abolitionist editor.
“In 1842 I was sent by the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society to hold a Sunday meeting in Pittsfield, N.H., and was given the name of Mr. Hilles, a subscriber to the Liberator. It was supposed that any man who had the courage to take and read the Liberator, edited by William Lloyd Garrison, or the Herald of Freedom [New Hampshire’s abolitionist paper, published in Concord], edited by Nathaniel P. Rogers, would gladly receive and give food and shelter to any colored brother laboring in the cause of the slave. As a general rule this was very true.

“There were no railroads in New Hampshire in those days, so I reached Pittsfield by stage, glad to be permitted to ride upon the top thereof, for no colored person could be allowed inside. This was many years before the days of civil rights bills, black Congressmen, colored U.S. Marshals, and such like.

“Arriving at Pittsfield, I was asked by the driver where I would stop. I gave him the name of my subscriber to the Liberator. “That is two miles beyond,” he said. So after landing his other passengers, he took me on to the house of Mr. Hilles.

“I confess I did not seem a very desirable visitor. The day had been warm and the road dusty. I was covered with dust, and then I was not of the color fashionable in that neighborhood, for colored people were very scarce in that part of the old Granite State. I saw in an instant that, though the weather was warm, I was to have a cool reception; but, cool or warm, there was no alternative left me but to stay and take what I could get.

“Mr. Hilles scarcely spoke to me, and, from the moment he saw me jump down from the top of the stage, carpet-bag in hand, his face wore a troubled look. His good wife took the matter more philosophically, and evidently thought my presence there for a day or two could do the family no especial harm; but her manner was restrained, silent, and formal, wholly unlike that of anti-slavery ladies I had met in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Frederick Douglass
“When tea-time came, I found that Mr. Hilles had lost his appetite and could not come to the table. I suspected his trouble was colorphobia, and though I regretted his malady, I knew his case was not necessarily dangerous; and I was not without some confidence in my skill and ability in healing diseases of that type. I was, however, so affected by his condition, that I could not eat much of the pie and cake before me, and felt so little harmony with things about me that I was, for me, remarkably reticent during the evening, both before and after family worship, for Mr. Hilles was a pious man.

“Sunday morning came, and in due season the hour for meeting. I had arranged a good supply of work for the day. I was to speak four times: at ten o’clock a.m., at one p.m., at five, and again at half-past seven in the evening.

“When meeting-tome came, Mr. Hilles brought his fine phaeton to the door, assisted his wife in, and, although  there were two vacant seats in his carriage, there was no room in it for me. On driving off from his door, he merely said, addressing me, ‘You can find your way to the town hall, I suppose?’ ‘I suppose I can,’ I replied, and started along behind the carriage on the dusty road toward the village. I found the hall, and was very glad to see in my small audience the face of good Mrs. Hilles. Her husband was not there, but he had gone to his church. There was no one to introduce me, and I proceeded with my discourse without introduction. I held my audience till twelve o’clock – noon – and then took the usual recess of Sunday meetings in country towns, to allow the people to take their lunch. No one invited me to lunch, so I remained in the town hall till the audience assembled again, when I spoke till nearly three o’clock, when the people again dispersed, and left me as before. By this time I began to be hungry, and seeing a small hotel near, I went into it and offered to buy a meal; but I was told ‘they did not entertain niggers there.’ I went back to the old town hall hungry and cold, for an infant ‘New England northeaster’ was beginning to chill the air, and a drizzling rain to fall. I saw that my movements were being observed from the comfortable homes around, with apparently something of the feeling that children might experience in seeing a bear prowling about town. There was a graveyard near the town hall, and, attracted thither, I felt some relief in contemplating the resting-places of the dead, where there was an end to all distinctions between rich and poor, white and colored, high and low.”

[To be continued in next post.] 

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