Hyde Park Stories: Frederick Douglass Monument | Local News | hpherald.com – Hyde Park Herald

The Frederick Douglass monument in Jackson Park. 
Haiti Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893.
Bird’s eye view of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
Frederick Douglass photographed on May 10, 1894. 

The Frederick Douglass monument in Jackson Park. 
North of the 59th Street Harbor in Jackson Park, a plaque honors Frederick Douglass. It marks the location of the Haitian Pavilion during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Douglass, in his speeches and autobiographies, used his own rise from slavery to world renown to argue for equality. It was illegal for him to learn how to read when he was enslaved, yet he learned, and it was through the power of the written and spoken word that he became a world-renowned abolitionist and statesman.
Douglass often made time to talk about the power of education to students. It’s fitting, then, that we owe this plaque to a teacher and his students. When Barry Rapoport, a teacher at South Shore High School, stumbled into the information that Frederick Douglass had spent the summer in Jackson Park, he devoted himself to creating the memorial so that this knowledge wouldn’t be lost again. The plaque seems isolated now, but, during the fair, this was a cluster of international pavilions, near the 59th Street pier.
Bird’s eye view of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
It took diplomacy to bring the world to Chicago in 1893 and, for a time, Douglass was a diplomat, the U.S. minister to Haiti. After Congress passed the act authorizing the fair, envoys went to governments worldwide. But when the envoy arrived in Haiti in April 1891, relations were tense. Haiti had something the United States wanted — a deepwater port where steamships could refuel on their way to the canal that the United States was itching to build across Panama. Frederick Douglass was negotiating in good faith when U.S. Admiral Gherardi and the North Atlantic fleet sailed in to demand the port. Gunboat diplomacy backfired, killing the deal, but White newspapers in the U.S., filled with imperialist fervor, attacked Douglass as incompetent, naïve, even double-dealing, and Haiti as a barbarous country soaked in political violence.
In the middle of this, the fair’s envoy showed up with the invitation to Chicago. Douglass had successfully negotiated a reciprocal trade agreement between Haiti and the United States, so, despite the tensions, a summer in Chicago showing off Haitian wares seemed like a good idea. As 1893 neared, Haiti named Charles A. Preston, part of the Haitian legation to the U.S., as its working commissioner. Douglass, who had resigned as U.S. minister, was thinking of retirement. He was over 75 and his strength was waning. But Haiti invited him to be an honorary commissioner in tribute to his honest dealings. It was a strategic move for both. His fame drew crowds to the small country’s pavilion, while Douglass gained an official role on the largest stage in the world.
The plaque notes that the pavilion was dedicated in January 1893 as the first completed building. This puzzled me. The pavilion didn’t open to the public until late June, almost two months after the fair opened. In addition, the dedication surprised the managers of the fair. Then, as I read the nationwide newspaper coverage, it dawned on me. By dedicating it as the first building at the breathlessly awaited World’s Fair, Douglass gained nationwide publicity. By staging it on the anniversary of Haiti’s independence, Douglass’s speech about Haiti’s accomplishments since overthrowing slavery became a natural part of the coverage.
Haiti Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893.
The pavilion itself counteracted the accusations of barbarity. It was solidly in the Beaux Arts aesthetic of the fair. As one guidebook said, it was a graceful “Greco-colonial” building painted “an agreeable yellow.” Its 12-foot-wide veranda offered shade and cool lakefront breezes. The west wing held offices and lounges. The east wing served Haitian coffee at ten cents a cup. The coffee was popular. As the Tribune said, “The tables are always thronged and expressions of delight are invariably heard from all who sample it.”
Among the Doric columns of the lobby were portraits of President Hippolyte and Frederick Douglass, the sword of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and the possibly authentic anchor from Columbus’s ship the Santa Maria, which sank in 1492 off Haiti. In the center of the lobby was “La Reverie,” a marble statue by Haitian artist Laforestrie, which had won a gold medal in the Paris Salon. There was also the display advertising trade. Unfortunately, the organizers were unaware of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the Haitian founder of the settlement that became Chicago. I’m sure he would have been front and center in the lobby.
Douglass’s office in the pavilion provided a home base for activists. Journalist Ida B. Wells, who had been burned out of Memphis by a mob after her exposé of lynching, had a permanent desk in the lounge where she distributed her pamphlet on the rising oppression in the South, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Some Black newspapers decried Wells’s pamphlet for increasing tensions. They didn’t think it was helpful to air conflict in front of the world. Wasn’t it better to be patient and pursue economic gains? Douglass and Wells were not interested in patience.
Historian Christopher Reed has pointed out that “Colored Americans” were at the fair, just not in the way they should have been. Congress and the fair organizers had promised administrative representation and a U.S. government annex to demonstrate the accomplishments of Black Americans since Emancipation. The bill to finance the annex died in Congress during a fight over voting rights. The administrative representation didn’t materialize.
The reason for the broken promises was clear — Congress and the fair made concessions to ensure the participation of the Southern states that were reinstating a system of exploitation and oppression. Douglass did not pull punches: “Who can tell Europe why 8,000,000 American citizens had not so much as a representative at the Exposition? Will they understand the toadyism to Louisiana and Mississippi which made us unwelcome at the nation’s fete? ….The enemies were received with open arms — enemies whose hearts are as bitter as in the days of war — enemies who filled the land with stumps of men — brave fighters maimed, shattered, and riddled by cannon and ball.” He called the White City “a whited sepulchre” — outwardly virtuous and inwardly corrupt.
Frederick Douglass photographed on May 10, 1894. 
The controversy over the fair crystallized around Colored American Day. It was supposed to be hoopla, like Irish Day or German Day, to boost attendance. However, was the day just a sop for the broken promises? Would it be a day of caricatures? Wells and many others boycotted. Douglass thought it provided another chance to reach a wider audience. Big speeches at the fair got national coverage. White newspapers, especially ones like the Chicago Inter Ocean, founded by Hyde Park abolitionist J. Y. Scammons, reproduced long passages of Douglass’s speeches that summer. Even the Tribune, which had been vitriolic about his time in Haiti, quoted him at length, acknowledging that he was one of the “greatest orators this country has ever known.”
That night in Festival Hall, Douglass, whose eyesight was failing, tried to read a typed speech, when hecklers started harassing him. He hesitated, tossed the speech, and launched into a passionate denunciation of discrimination. The poet Paul Dunbar was there that night and reported that Douglass drowned out the hecklers “as an organ would a penny whistle.” The next day, the newspapers carried his message: “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.”
Black Americans did come to the fair but not in representative numbers. The Black population of Chicago was small, around 16,000, and admission was expensive. Travel was even more expensive and daunting, though accommodations in Chicago seem to have been, as Reed says, “racially fluid.” For instance, Frederick Douglass stayed at the Palmer House during his first trip. The Haitian delegation had rooms at the Richelieu Hotel, a luxury hotel favored by White celebrities at 318 S. Michigan.
“Racially fluid,” however, meant there were tensions. Wells recalled going to dinner with Douglass to the Boston Oyster House downtown. She didn’t think they’d be allowed in. They were, but they were ignored until the waiter recognized Douglass.
The fair gathered much of the next generation of Black voices. Across the summer, Douglass joined many others who provided the Black perspective at the Congresses discussing a broad range of issues — City Government, Education, Law, Religion, Labor, Women. Ida B. Wells worked with Chicago lawyer and publisher Ferdinand Lee Barnett at the pavilion. They married soon after. Paul Laurence Dunbar, writing a column on the fair for the Dayton Herald, supported himself with menial jobs until Douglass read his poetry and hired him to be his assistant. At the fair, Dunbar became friends with James Weldon Johnson, the future civil rights activist and writer, who was spending the summer as a tour guide pushing a wheeled chair before returning to studies at Atlanta University.
At the end of his year in Chicago, Douglass was given a triumphant farewell at the Quinn AME Church, the oldest Black church in Chicago. Speaker after speaker praised the difference Douglass had made in their lives. In a fitting conclusion to the year, Douglass ended the evening with another fiery speech reported in the papers. A year after the fair, a Tribune reporter wandered among the broken lath and stacks of lumber near where the Haitian Pavilion had been and wondered what the Fair had meant. For Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, the fair had meant one last attempt to turn the tide of history, a grand finale on the national stage at the end of his amazing life.
David Blight. “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” 2018. Simon and Schuster. (Pulitzer Prize winner)
Frederick Douglass’s Autobiographies: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. 1848. “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” 1881.
Christopher Reed. “’All the World Is Here!’ The Black Presence at White City.” 2000. Indiana University Press.
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Updated: February 22, 2022 @ 12:35 am
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