Frederick Douglass: The Lost Interview by William S. Shepard


Editor’s Note: This interview, dated October 6, 1894, was recently discovered in our files. We retain its original form of questions and answers, the Spy for questions from the Talbot Spy, and Frederick Douglass for the replies. It does not seem to have been submitted to Mr. Douglass for review, and has been lightly redacted by our correspondent, William S. Shepard. We offer it to our readers for whatever interest it may possess in adding to our general knowledge of this great American.

Spy: You have been quoted as loving the Eastern Shore. How is that possible?

FD: If I had maintained any bitterness from my days of captivity, that was cast aside during my return in 1881, to the Lloyd residence and to that of Admiral Buchanan, “The Rest.” I was touched that Mrs. Buchanan remembered me from her days as a little girl at Wye House. And yes, the food and climate of the Eastern Shore were formative. I regard myself as an Eastern Shore man, proud of it, and hopeful that as we evolve, its blessings will be within reach of all Americans, according to their morality and their industry.

Spy: How would you like to be remembered? Do you have a political legacy?

FD: I would like to be remembered as an American who did his best. As far as a political legacy is concerned, I am less sure. Clearly the freedom, and then the expansion of rights for those lately in slavery has been my life’s work. But my interests have been far broader than that. I see no sense in the pervading discrimination against women, for example. That is why I attended the first women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. My, has it really been nearly 50 years? I was the only member of my race to attend.

I was surprised when I was asked to speak at the convention, but I was pleased to do so. I spoke in favor of women’s suffrage. I do think that half the population should not be deprived of the vote. It was encouraging to note that after my oration, the resolution passed. But it is a sad thing to note that now, nearly fifty years later, women’s suffrage is still not attained.

Spy: Doesn’t this run counter to your main interest, in expanding the rights of black Americans?

FD: Not at all. First, women’s suffrage is the right thing to do, and stands on its own merits as an issue. But also, an expanding suffrage benefits everyone,

Frederock Douglass as young man

certainly all those who do not have full rights. It struck me that our interests were held in common, and so from then on, as time and circumstances allowed, I spoke in favor of rights for those who were or had been slaves, and for female suffrage.

I would add the point that as rights expand, our democracy matures, and gains the benefit of greater participation – and more defenders. Beware those, on the contrary, who would divide us. They seek to create enemies, and turn our people against each other. That way lies tyranny.

Spy: Did you ever think of seeking a political career?

FD: If by a “political career” you mean seeking political office, I did not. Oh yes, you will have heard that I was nominated for Vice President of the United States on the Equal Rights Party, with Victoria Woodhull, in 1872. But that was done without my knowledge or consent, and I did not campaign. If by “political career”.you mean advancing ideas in the political arena, then most of my work was political.

Spy: Still, you held a number of political appointments.

FD: Assuredly. I was appointed by President Hayes to the position of Marshall of the District of Columbia in 1877, and Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia by President Garfield in 1881. President Benjamin Harrison appointed me to the diplomatic appointment of Minister to the Republic of Haiti in 1889.

Spy: This was an appointment from which you ultimately resigned.

FD: Yes. My speech in Chicago, on January 2, 1893, gives my views on “the only self-made Black Republic in the world.” I had been invited to give the address at the dedication ceremony for the Haitian Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Chicago. I wanted Americans to know that Haitians are people like themselves. I pointed out the great accomplishments of the people of Haiti, as the first nation to cast off the shackles of slavery. And the setting was doubly appropriate. The founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, was not a white man. His mother had been a black slave in Haiti.

The specific issue over which I resigned was the great Haitian harbor of Mole St. Nicholas. It was wanted as a coaling station. I made the representation requested, but soon saw that the people and government of Haiti would have none of it. This ran counter to the hopes of those who hoped to expand our influence not by the ideals of democracy, but by force. One recalls the lamentable history of Walker, who attempted who attempted with American connivance to take over Nicaragua some forty years ago, for example.

Some went so far as to urge that Haiti become an American protectorate. Under this guise, we would simply have taken over what we could not have obtained by free consent. And the reason for this was put down as the natural incapacity of the black man to understand his own best interests. No, sometimes, with regret, it is best to resign, and make a public case.

Haitians, like all peoples, are and should be our friends. And the scope of our peaceful interests is a broad and natural one. But the path of indirect conquest sows future discord, for remote generations. Yes, I was glad to serve as Minister to Haiti. I learned much there, about our own country as well as that of the Haitians. And now, if you will excuse me, I find that I tire easily these days. Perhaps we will have the pleasure of a further talk soon.

Spy: Thank you, sir. I would look forward to that, as would our readers.

William S. Shepard’s works of fiction and non-fiction can be found online at Amazon by clicking here.

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