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Douglass left Binghamton… disgusted…

In 1872, Frederick Douglass campaigned widely for the Republican cause under the leadership of President Ulysses S. Grant. While on his way by rail to Oswego, he made a scheduled stop-over in Binghamton at 3 A.M. on Thursday, September 27, where the unexpected happened. When he stepped off the train, there was no crowd, not even one person, to welcome him. For Douglass, or any person of his stature, this situation was at least a slight, or an affront. The city’s Democratic news- papers, especially the weekly Democratic Leader, pointedly and racially examined the situation with virulence.

On October 4, The Leader declared that “Fred Douglass, the white darkey, telegraphed Injun DeVoe that he would arrive here Thursday night of last week.” But the response of the local Radical Republicans led by Benjamin DeVoe prompted the Binghamton Daily Democrat on the 27th to suggest “the Radicals [were] aware of his arrival, but somehow they seem to neglect their duty….This is a specimen of Radical love for the nigger!” In reference to Douglass’ excuse for not being invited to Grant’s White House dinner earlier in the year, the same article sarcastically states, “Wonder if Fred will swear, as on a former occasion, that it was all a mistake, an oversight on the part of his professed admirers, and excuse them, as he did his master Grant, for their want of courtesy.”

Douglass walked the platform as he waited until local civil rights activist, Henry C. Jones, arrived and escorted him to the Exchange Hotel. There is no reference of Jones being a Radical Republican. The Leader reported that he “was boiling over with rage; mad—cross as a bear, and closed himself up in his room.” At this point, the Leader reported that DeVoe re-emerged and

“tried to make amends during the [early] morning by picking up a stray darkey here and there and taking him up to see Douglass. This was adding insult to injury. Maybe Ben did not know it, but if there anyone that detests negroes socially it is Douglass.” 

This dramatic assertion may have some legitimacy and deserves attention. In Frederick Douglass (1991), William S. McFeely discusses Douglass’ contempt for working class people, and that his “strong self-confidence was accompanied by an arrogance that could be exposed by the smallest slight.” Similarly, David W. Blight posits in Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018) that many for years Douglass was bothered by the “listless indifference” of black Americans, and he “often turned attacks on white racism into angry rebukes of black lethargy.” Unlike Henry C. Jones who did alright with Douglass, maybe he perceived “a stray darkey” as “listless” or lethargic.

Four months before Frederick Douglass’ visit to Binghamton, on June 1, his home for 25 years in Rochester was destroyed by arson. This disaster prompted Douglass to express his anger in his weekly New National Era on June 13, charging that Rochester ”has its full share of the Ku Klux spirit… It is the spirit of hate…” Binghamton at least had a “spirit of hate” but Douglass, unfortunately, did not write about his stay in the city in the next 3 issues of Era. The Leader was not profound when it concluded, “Douglass left Binghamton… disgusted….”

This article was originally published on 12/30/18 on NewYorkHistoryReview.com.

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