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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, August 09, 2018

When Frederick Douglass Met John Brown in Springfield

John Brown enthusiasts are all acquainted with the important autobiographical reflections of the Old Man provided by Frederick Douglass in his last autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881 (revised in 1892) when Douglass was advanced in years. 

Among the interesting points explored by historians is the matter of Douglass’ much-quoted visit to John Brown’s home in Springfield, Massachusetts.  In his autobiography, Douglass wrote that visit to the Brown household took place in 1847.  It does seem to be the case that Brown met Douglass in Springfield in 1847.  In fact, Brown wrote to John Junior on May 15, 1847, saying he was “in hourly expectation of a visit from Fred Douglas [sic].”1 Assuming this meeting took place in Springfield, it is the first record of their eventful alliance.  However, if Douglass dined with Brown that day, it was not with Mary Brown and the children as Douglass recalled in his autobiography. In May 1847, Mary and the children were still residing in Akron, Ohio, at their residence on the Perkins estate.  Apparently, she did not come to Springfield until mid-July that year.2   It may be that Brown fixed a meal for Douglass in his residence, but it seems more likely that Douglass was conflating his memories of meetings with Brown in Springfield in 1847 and 1848.

Since there is no evidence that Douglass was back in Springfield for the rest of 1847, and since the Browns moved to a number of places in Springfield before settling on Hastings Street, named by Douglass, the actual dinner with the Brown family he describes in his autobiography could not have been any earlier than his visit in February 1848.  The late historian Benjamin Quarles first noted that Douglass visited Springfield twice in 1848, the dates of which he found in Douglass’s paper, The North Star.  Those visits took place on October 29 and November 18, 1848.3   The dinner with Mary and the children must certainly have taken place on one of these two 1848 dates. 

The conflation of his visits to Brown in Springfield most likely was an issue of memory, although elsewhere in his third autobiography, Douglass used conflation probably with intentionality.   As I have written elsewhere, Douglass tends to conflate a number of meetings with Brown in 1859 in the Chambersburg quarry episode, which he says took place a few weeks before the Harper’s Ferry raid, although in actuality it took place in August 1859.   Douglass does not reveal meetings that took place in Detroit in March 1859, with Brown and black abolitionists from Detroit and Chatham, Ontario, nor his meeting with Brown in Philadelphia in October 1859.  His opposition to the invasion of Harper’s Ferry proper was an issue that overshadowed the two friends for most of 1859, although Douglass found it expedient to present the issue as a single disagreement in the fall of 1859.  I have taken this up in both John Brown—The Cost of Freedom and in Freedom’s DawnThe Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.--LD


            1 John Brown to John Brown Jr., May 15, 1847, Kohns Collection, New York Public Library, New York, N.Y.
            2 John Brown to Ruth Brown Thompson, September 1, 1847, in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 144-45, which give a sense of the details of the move and setting up house in Springfield.
            3 See Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (New York: DeCapo Press, 1997), 170, n. 2.  


Alice Keesey Mecoy said...

In a letter to Dr A. M. Ross, dated July 31 1887, Annie, John Brown's daughter, relates the reading of Frederick Douglass' book to her children and how she told her children that the reference to a dinner in Springfield without a tablecloth was not true. "I told them "no" that there was not a word of truth in that statement."

After the meeting in August 1859, it was almost over 150 years before the families again spoke to each other. Kenneth Morris, Douglass' ggg grandson and I, John Brown's ggg granddaughter, are now friends. In fact I am on the Advisory Board for the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI.org) still fighting against slavery and human trafficking.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Thank you Alice Keesey Mecoy. Yes, Sarah also reiterates that sentiment somewhere, and I assume she would have heard that said by mother Mary. But I do wonder whether Douglass, rather than presenting the story in fiction, if actually he wasn't conflating more than one visit with the Browns. If Douglass met your Grandfather in Springfield in 1847, it is possible he did so before Mary had moved from Akron to Springfield, and that the house was rather plain because your Grandfather was yet there by himself and one of the older boys. This might explain why there was no table cloth in Douglass' memory, although he likely had subsequent occasions to have dinner with the Browns, both in Springfield and in Akron. I only say this because overall I've never found Douglass given to fabrications or exaggerations. He is given, however, to conflation, condensing episodes in a minimalist fashion. As to the last meeting, we have evidence that the last meeting between John Brown and Frederick Douglass was in October, two weeks prior to the raid, in Philadelphia. This is again, Douglass' inclination to conflation. He overlooked their meeting in detroit in Mar 59 and made the Chambersburg meeting two weeks prior to the raid, although (as you point out) the Chambersburg meeting was in August. However, there was also a meeting in the fall, and by then the Old Man knew that Douglass was not reliable. It is great that you have brought the family back in contact with the Douglass family after all these many years. I wonder what Annie would say?!