Douglass, Garrison brought eloquence to Pittsburgh in 1847

Abolitionists got warm reception here


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Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass had reason to worry about the kind of reception he would receive in Pittsburgh.

His 1847 visit was covered extensively in Pittsburgh's newspapers, and in 2014 the story is part of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's coverage of Black History Month.

Born a slave around 1818 in Maryland, Douglass had tried several times to escape to the North, finally succeeding in 1838 with the help of a free black woman he later married. He achieved international renown with his autobiography, published in 1845.

By the time he began a lecture tour two years later with William Lloyd Garrison, a white leader of the abolition movement, Douglass had become the human face for the campaign to end the South's "peculiar institution."

But not everyone in the North was a fan. When Douglass, 29, was leaving Philadelphia on the next leg of a speaking tour across Pennsylvania, he had been pulled out of a railway coach by an attacker who demanded he give up his seat. His white assailant turned out to be a Harrisburg lawyer.

Garrison, 41, wrote in a letter home that the incident provided evidence of "that venomous pro-slavery spirit which pervades the public sentiment in proportion as you approach the borders of the slave States."

Penn State University historian Ira V. Brown described Douglass' and Garrison's experiences across Pennsylvania in an article called "An Antislavery Journey" that appeared in the autumn 2000 issue of "Pennsylvania History."

Things got worse for the speakers after they arrived by train in Harrisburg. When Garrison and Douglass attempted on Aug. 7 to argue the case for an immediate end to slavery, protestors threw rotten eggs, firecrackers and stones into the Dauphin County Courthouse where the men had been addressing supporters.

Two days later at Chambersburg, where the railroad line ended, the two abolitionists split up. Douglass's ticket let him go on ahead on a stagecoach ride that took him over the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh. Douglass later told Garrison that he had been the subject of insults and "petty annoyances" during that leg of the trip. Inns would not serve him, and he had only a few crackers to nibble on during his two-day journey.

Brass band welcome

Things improved when Douglass arrived here on Aug. 11. He was greeted at the stagecoach office by John B. Vashon, a successful black barber and businessman. When Vashon took Douglass to his home, they were met not by brickbats but by a friendly reception committee of black and white supporters and even a brass band.

That night Douglass and Garrison, who arrived later that day, both spoke at a meeting in the city's Temperance Hall, which stood at the southeast corner of Smithfield Street and what is now Forbes Avenue.

Reporters for the city's major newspapers were impressed.

George Vashon, the lawyer son of John, introduced Douglass, who was described as "the celebrated colored lecturer" in the Aug. 12 edition of The Pittsburgh Daily Gazette.

"Mr. D. acknowledged the friendship and courtesy extended to him," the Gazette reported. "After a few general remarks, [he] went into an argument to justify his conduct and declarations in reference to slavery in the United States ..."

His "conduct and declarations" referred to the speeches he had made during a lecture tour in Great Britain and Ireland where he called for an immediate end to slavery or the dissolution of the United States.

The willingness of Douglass and Garrison to break up the Union worried the editor of The Daily Pittsburg Dispatch, who, using the editorial writer's "we," described himself as "anti-slavery in all our feelings."

"While we readily admit that they are both possessed of considerable merit as speakers, we are impelled to express our regret that they indulged in such embittered attacks upon the Union," the newspaper said on Aug. 13.

The Daily Morning Post was the city's Democratic Party paper, and it was generally sympathetic to the South. While respectful in its coverage, the newspaper took issue both with Douglass's arguments and choice of words.

Eloquent speaker

The Post on Aug. 12 referred to Douglass as "this distinguished colored man, who has traveled Great Britain and the Northern States, lecturing in defense of Anti-Slavery doctrines." Describing his speech at Temperance Hall, the newspaper said he was "a very eloquent speaker and exhibits intellectual greatness."

The writer then went on to urge Douglass to "exercise a little more liberality towards those who do not come up to his idea of right in their opinions and conduct. The simple word 'slaveholder' would convey Mr. D's idea quite as well as 'man stealer,' 'thief' or 'plunderer.' "

Douglass and Garrison were the headliners at three abolitionist meetings, including two outdoor sessions held in a park facing what is now Penn Avenue. "There was an immense crowd of white and black of both sexes and of all ages," the Post reported on Aug. 13. "Excellent order prevailed, which we notice to the credit of the city."

"The address of Mr. Douglas was characterized by sarcasm, invective, simile and argument," the paper said. "He spoke boldly in favor of dissolution of the Union -- this, in fact, was his theme. He denounced the federal Constitution and all the men now at the head of the government."

The Gazette provided the most extensive coverage of the abolitionists' visit, devoting more than a full column in its Aug 13 edition to the morning, afternoon and evening meetings.

In his evening talk, Douglass "contrasted his bad treatment at home, and particularly while on his way to Pittsburgh," with the deference and respect he had been shown during his time in Europe, the Gazette reported.

Douglass and Garrison had by far their greatest successes in Pennsylvania in their talks in Pittsburgh.

For their final stop in the Keystone state, the two men were joined by Martin Delany. Delany, then working as a physician and newspaper editor in Pittsburgh, would go on to become the highest ranking black officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

The three men and several other supporters traveled by steamboat to Beaver and then continued on in a horse-drawn wagon to nearby New Brighton.

"The New Brighton town officials would not permit a meeting in the town square and, on inquiry, they found that no church was available," historian Benjamin Quarles wrote in his 1948 biography of Douglass. The only spot for a meeting was a loft above a feed store where bags of grain were stored. That location, according to biographer Henry Mayer, opened the way for Garrison to make an awful pun.

Mice had nibbled at the bags of milled grain stored above the speakers platform, Mr. Mayer wrote in "All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery." The "sprinkle of white dust reminded the editor ... to make his talk 'a little more floury.' "

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Inside

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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