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    Frederick Douglass on cover of Harper’s Weekly, 1883

    Frederick Douglass was the main speaker at the 1883 National Colored Convention in Louisville, KY, using his great voice to rally against the injustices still encountered by former slaves in the era of Reconstruction.

    Black men from across the country came to the convention, united in their stand with Douglass, the country’s foremost African American abolitionist who himself had escaped slavery on the way to becoming a gifted orator.

    On this day, September 24, Douglass spoke not just to the men in attendance but also to a country that had “freed” the slaves but still looked upon his people in much he same way it had before emancipation in 1863.

    Up-close view of Frederick Douglass on cover of Harper's Weekly, Nov. 24, 1883.

    Up-close view of Frederick Douglass on cover of Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 24, 1883.

    Exactly two months later, on Nov. 24, 1883, Douglass’ image was on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, one of the leading and most-read publications in the country – whose articles ranged from social to political to the Civil War. Its wood-cut illustrations are legendary.

    At auction recently, I came across a framed copy of the edition with Douglass’ picture. I had casually flipped through a stack of tattered copies of Harper’s Weekly – and some framed copies – in one room at the auction house and found very little that caught my eye. Then I entered the second room where the better stuff is sold, and there it was, hanging on a wall above a collection of old typewriters. As I’d seen in many other photos, he was glancing to the right. I’ll add this cover to my photograph of Douglass that I bought at auction some years ago.

    The publication contained an article about him on page 743. Googling later, I found the article – written by George William Curtis, an abolitionist who was editor of Harper’s. He wrote about Douglass’ birth into and escape from slavery, and his relentless campaign against it before the war and advocacy for civil rights after it.

    Full view of Frederick Douglass on Harper's Weekly cover, Nov. 24, 1883.

    Full view of Frederick Douglass on Harper’s Weekly cover, Nov. 24, 1883.

    “Frederick Douglass is the most conspicuous American of African descent, and his career is a striking illustration of the nature of free popular institutions,” wrote Curtis. “Born a slave, he is to-day, by his own energy and character and courage, an eminent citizen, and his life has been a constant and powerful plea for his people. Over infinite disadvantage and prejudice, his patience, intelligence, capacity, and tenacity have triumphantly prevailed, and in himself he is a repudiation of the current assertions against the colored race.

    “Mr. Douglass’s address at the late Colored Convention showed a comprehension of the situation of the colored people in this country which justified the regard in which he is held, and which explains the leadership that he has held so long.”

    This was Douglass first appearance on Harper’s cover but not in the magazine. Curtis had written an anecdote about him in an 1876 edition of the publication. In 1877, there was an illustration and mention of him being appointed a U.S. marshal in Washington. Later, when Douglass died in February 1895, Harper’s ran the 1883 illustration as part of an obituary.

    I was curious about what triggered the Douglass cover and what specifically was going on in the country at the time. During the year, he had spoken at meetings on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed by President Lincoln to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

    Illustration of Frederick Douglass, left, in 1877 Harper's Weekly, on his being named a U.S. marshal in Washington, DC.

    Illustration of Frederick Douglass, top left, in 1877 Harper’s Weekly, on his being named a U.S. marshal in Washington, DC.

    One of the most momentous events was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the 1875 Civil Rights Act. During a civil rights mass meeting at Lincoln Hall in Washington, Douglass had criticized the court’s recent decision to nullify the act. By 1883 and Reconstruction, slavery had been abolished and several African Americans had been sent to Congress, but the issues facing black people had not changed. They were still denied full rights.

    The act granted equal rights to all people in the United States regardless of race or color or “previous condition of servitude” in public accommodations and other areas. It also provided for compensation for those denied their rights. The court ruled that under the Constitution, Congress could force states to act in a certain way, but not private people or businesses. The decision literally left African Americans at the mercy of Southerners and others who had enslaved them, and they were back where they started.

    Even before the justices’ decision, Douglass had noted this post-war sameness in his speech at the convention. He also addressed those folks – some of them black – who questioned why a convention for black people was needed now that they had been freed.

    These conventions were nothing new. The first national one was the National Convention of Free People of Colour in 1830 in Philadelphia. There were also state and regional conventions during the 19th century, all with the same purpose. Most were held in the north and west, and began appearing in the South in 1865. The first African American women’s convention was held in Boston in 1895.

    A Harper's Weekly illustration of the National Colored Convention in Washington, DC, in 1869. Frederick Douglass spoke at the one in 1883. Illustration by Theo R. Davis.

    A Harper’s Weekly illustration of the National Colored Convention in Washington, DC, in 1869. Frederick Douglass spoke at the one in 1883. Illustration by Theo R. Davis.

    You can see an original version of Douglass’ speech at the 1883 convention here and read the speech here.

    “With apparent surprise, astonishment and impatience we have been asked: “What more can the colored people of this country want than they now have, and what more is possible to them?” Douglass said. “It is said they were once slaves, they are now free; they were once subjects, they are now sovereigns; they were once outside of all American institutions, they are now inside of all and are a recognized part of the whole American people. Why, then, do they hold Colored National Conventions and thus insist upon keeping up the color line between themselves and their white fellow countrymen?

    “Even now, after twenty years of so-called emancipation, we are subject to lawless raids of midnight riders, who, with blackened faces, invade our homes and perpetrate the foulest of crimes upon us and our families. This condition of things is too flagrant and notorious to require specifications or proof. Thus in all the relations of life and death we are met by the color line. We cannot ignore it if we would, and ought not if we could. It hunts us at midnight, it denies us accommodation in hotels and justice in the courts; excludes our children from schools, refuses our sons the chance to learn trades and compels us to pursue only such labor as will bring the least reward.

    “While we recognize the color line as a hurtful force, a mountain barrier to our progress, wounding our bleeding feet with its flinty rocks at every step, we do not despair. We are a hopeful people. This convention is a proof of our faith in you, in reason, in truth and justice – our belief that prejudice, with all it malign accompaniments, may yet be removed by peaceful means; that, assisted by time and events and the growing enlightenment of both races, the color line will ultimately become harmless.”

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