A Defender of His Race
On August 25, 1893, Frederick Douglass spoke to a crowd gathered for Colored American Day at the World’s Columbian Exposition. At 3:00 p.m., the twenty-five hundred people filling Festival Hall—two-thirds black and one-third white, in the estimation of the Chicago Tribune—greeted Douglass with applause as he stepped onto the stage. In the three decades since the end of the Civil War, this escaped slave and former leader of the abolitionist movement had become a diplomat and elder statesman, the principal spokesperson for his people. Seventy-five years old, his long hair and beard now white, his six-foot frame lean and erect, the Sage of Anacostia smiled and waved to the crowd.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, the ex-slaves of the South were making rapid progress economically as well as politically, exercising their newly won right to vote and electing their own to local and state governments as well as the U.S. Congress. But even before federal troops withdrew from the old Confederacy in 1877, southern whites used extreme violence to block African Americans from the ballot box and otherwise restore the antebellum racial hierarchy. More than one hundred black men had been murdered by white mobs across the South in the first six months of 1893 alone; three were burned alive. At the same time, millions of black men and women found themselves in conditions no better than slavery, as sharecroppers or as convict laborers under a system known as peonage, whereby they were charged with petty crimes and sentenced to long terms working on farms or in mines or factories—without pay, of course.
The national government, in response to these troubling developments, did little more than shrug its shoulders. Both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government were dominated at this time by the Republicans, yet the party of Abraham Lincoln was backing away from its commitment to African Americans, lest it alienate southern white voters and their representatives in Congress. Such acquiescence to white supremacists extended to the U.S. Supreme Court itself, which increasingly applied the protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to corporations, rather than African Americans, ultimately leading to the justices’ shameful sanction of legal segregation in the South and beyond under the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson.
So on that hot August day in 1893, Frederick Douglass did his best to stem the tide, striding onto the stage with an individual who represented the best of the nation’s past, Isabella Beecher Hooker, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been a fulcrum of the abolitionist movement. The program itself, meanwhile, showcased the talents of a new, freeborn generation of African Americans that included Paul Laurence Dunbar, a tall, cerebral twenty-one-year-old who would come to be seen as black America’s first nationally known poet, as well as Will Marion Cook, an up-and-coming black composer who was then studying under the great Bohemian Antonin Dvorák. Cook had arranged the event’s program of classical pieces, which featured a number of beautifully sung arias as well as a violin performance by Joseph Douglass, grandson of the Sage.
Following all of these heartening appearances, the room was filled with anticipation as Douglass stepped back up to the podium to deliver the closing speech. But as he began to read from his papers, the great man’s voice failed him, either because of the heat or exhaustion, and a group of white men in the gallery began to shout slurs and insults.
Unable to make himself heard, Douglass paused, then slammed his printed speech onto the podium. He yanked the glasses from his temples and began speaking extemporaneously, his voice steadily rising in volume and depth until it succeeded in drowning out his hecklers.
We hear nowadays of a frightful problem called a Negro problem. What is this problem? As usual, the North is humbugged. The Negro problem is a Southern device to mislead and deceive. There is, in fact, no such problem. The real problem has been given a false name. It is called Negro for a purpose. It has substituted Negro for Nation, because the one is hated and despised, and the other is loved and honored. The true problem is a national problem.
There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.
The applause shook the building at the end of Douglass’s speech, ringing out into the White City and over the blue waters of Lake Michigan beyond. Douglass’s decision to speak at this event had been controversial among many African American activists, who feared that a Colored American Day would simply be used to perpetuate the worst sorts of stereotypes and ridicule, if not provide a tacit recognition, even acceptance, of segregation. But Douglass felt that the fair was a singular opportunity to focus the world’s attention, if only for one moment, on black achievement, and he succeeded, as the Chicago Tribune indicated in its coverage of the event.
“There was classical music rendered by black men in a way that would grace the grand opera stage,” the Tribune reported, “and there was an oration, which, with its vivid eloquence, burned itself into the memory of those who listened.”
Among those listening was the future founder of The Chicago Defender, who would remember every word. Then in his early twenties and a student at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, Robert Abbott had come to the World’s Fair to sing tenor with the Hampton Quartet. Already absorbed by “the plight of my people,” he was both radicalized and urbanized by his experience. What he saw in Chicago that summer convinced him that this city was the perfect place to realize his dreams.
“Tell father if he will back me,” he wrote to his family enthusiastically, “I will stay out here in the West and try and make a fortune. Let me know his intentions before I begin to make up my mind as to what steps to take.”
Robert Abbott was born in November 1869 in a cabin on St. Simons Island, a speck of land in the Atlantic Ocean several miles off the coast of Georgia. More than in most places, St. Simons’s black inhabitants maintained a strong connection to the African continent by speaking Gullah, a language incorporating vocabulary and grammar from several West African languages as well as English. His parents’ home was near Ibo Landing, a place that figures in a legend about a shipload of new slaves who jumped into the water wearing their chains, drowning themselves to escape further abuse onshore. Today their ghosts are said to be visible in the ocean’s turbulent waves, their songs heard in the breeze blowing through the trees.
Robert’s biological father, Thomas, born around 1847, was a native of the island and lived most of his life as a house slave to one Captain Charles Stevens, who held a plantation there. After the Civil War, each member of the Abbott clan was awarded a plot of land on the island, but Thomas sought out instead the excitement and opportunity of nearby Savannah. There he met Robert’s mother, Flora Butler, an intelligent, determined woman with a defiant streak, whose parents were slaves brought as teenagers from the Portuguese-held territories in West Africa. In an unpublished, unfinished autobiography included in Robert Abbott’s files, Flora describes how she taught herself to read and write in secret, using tissue paper to trace the names of area families engraved on metal plates affixed to their homes.
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Excerpted from The Defender by Ethan Michaeli. Copyright © 2016 by Ethan Michaeli. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.