Frederick Douglass -- Exploited
In June 1872 Douglass’s house in
burned to the ground. Subsequently, he moved his wife to and
established a permanent residence in the nation’s capital, where he would edit
another newspaper, the New National Era. Not only had Douglass expected that his race
be rewarded for its part in electing the President but he himself expected some
sort of consideration. He had wanted the
postmastership at Rochester
but had not received it. Now he would be
in Rochester . Soon Grant would be up for re-election and
would need him again to garner the Negro vote.
Douglass fully expected a political appointment as compensation. Washington
What he received was an invitation to be a secretary to a commission appointed to visit
commission would assess how local people felt about a proposed treaty that
would annex Santo
Domingo Santo Domingo to the . Douglass sailed and dined with commissioners,
one a former senator, another the president of United States . When letters from President Grant and the
Secretary of State were delivered to the Dominican officials, Douglass
discovered that his name was not mentioned.
His presence was purely honorary.
He had no official duties. When
the omission returned to Cornell University ,
Grant invited the members to a dinner party at the White House. Douglass was not invited. He had unwittingly served Grant’s political
purposes. Douglass’s trip to Washington had been designed
to embarrass Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an old abolitionist friend
of Douglass’s. Sumner had successfully
fought passage of the treaty of annexation in the Senate mainly because Grant
saw the annexation as an opportunity to relocate countless Southern blacks
there, away from a smoldering South.
Additionally, some in the administration, which historians would
describe as one to the most corrupt of the century, saw annexation as an
opportunity to make money on real estate transactions. Santo Domingo
The entire affair was a major embarrassment to Douglass. A good many black leaders were insulted and spoke openly against Grant’s re-election. The Democratic candidate in 1872 was newspaper publisher Horace Greely, who had been in the past a friend of the Negro. Yet, rather than recognize that Grant was not a committed friend of his race, Douglass swallowed his damaged pride and supported the President. As he saw it, the Republican Party “is the deck. All else is the sea” (Bontemps 258). He rationalized his treatment by insisting that Congress had provided for only three commissioners to
. As for
his snub at the White House, Douglass would say, “Where is a Democrat President
who ever invited a colored man to his table” (Bontemps 259)? Santo
Douglass assumed that turning the other cheek and working hard for Grant’s re-election would make the President grateful. Surely then Douglass would receive the reward he so apparently needed. The Negro vote went to Grant as a block and Greely was defeated. In
Douglass continued to publish his newspaper, which he would eventually abandon,
and waited for his appointment. Washington
He received instead an invitation to become president of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, a bank that had been charted by Congress in 1865 to protect and build the newly earned savings of laboring blacks in the reconstructed South, savings that eventually, hopefully, would enable them to invest in houses, farms, or businesses. At first, the bank did serve the interests of hard-working black citizens. Trustees of the bank, however, began to use the money that had accumulated to invest in speculative ventures, and when Douglass was approached, the bank was in trouble and in need of someone who could restore confidence in the insolvent institution.
Douglass only knew what the bank had stood for. Restoring confidence was his sole duty, as he saw it. Once again, his desire for position “overwhelmed his good sense.” There had been “enough gossip around
to make him highly skeptical, had
he chosen to be. … As president, he seems to have devoted all of his attention
to reassuring the depositors; there is no evidence of his exercising daily
supervision over the loan portfolio” (McFeely 284). Washington
Depositors in the South had become nervous.
Some of them wondered why they had experienced difficulties when attempting to withdraw money. At his shiny new desk Douglass drafted a telegram to each branch. All was well with the Freedman’s Bank, he wanted them to know, and all deposits were secure. Let patience prevail. All would be well.
To the Senate Committee on Finance he also directed a communication. Public confidence was the ingredient needed. Given that, the bank could continue, he thought. He advised that certain branches be closed to reduce expenses. Then he settled back to wait for the results.
The reaction from the people was good. Negroes took his word for gospel and confidently waited for the bank to settle its affairs. Those who knew more about such matters were less sure, however. Presently Douglass learned with dismay that many of the trustees of the Bank had withdrawn their own money and deposited it elsewhere. Aroused like a lion in a trap, Douglass hurriedly called the group together and insisted on an explanation. The bank was hopelessly insolvent, and Douglass lamented, “I have married a corpse” (Bontemps 266).
The bank was closed and, eventually, depositors were repaid less than fifty cents on the dollar.
Douglass became the target of withering criticism and denunciation.
Though his own connections with the enterprise were completely aired during the controversy and all evidence brought forward to show that he had been unaware of the true condition of the bank when he accepted the presidency, had in fact lost about $1,000 of his own money in it, the resentment of those who had lost deposits did not fade readily, and Douglass was as near disgrace as he had ever been.
So it was back to the lecture platform and the old and weary ordeal of trains that did not run on schedule, poorly ventilated and badly lighted halls, and women with crying babies in the front seats. Though it continued to provide him with a comfortable income, lecturing had completely lost its appeal (Bontemps 266-267).
Bontemps, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971. Print
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New