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Frederick Douglass to Horatio G. Warner, September 22, 1848

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FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO HORATIO G. WARNER1Horatio Gates Warner (1801–76), an attorney from Madison County, New York, moved to Rochester in 1840. There, he assumed the editorial chair of the Rochester Courier while continuing to practice law. He later served as president of the Bank of Rochester and served as regent of the State University of New York in 1869. William F. Peck, Landmarks of Monroe County, New York: Containing an Historical Sketch of Monroe County and the City of Rochester (Boston, 1895), 113; ACAB, 2:433–34.

[Rochester, N.Y. 22 September 1848].

H. G. Warner, Esq.

(Editor of the Rochester Courier.)

SIR:—

My reasons—I will not say my apology, for addressing to you this letter, will become evident, by perusing the following brief statement of facts.

About the middle of August of the present year—deeply desiring to give my daughter, a child between nine and ten years old,2Douglass’s older daughter, Rosetta, was born 24 June 1839. the advantages of a good school and learning that “Seward Seminary” of this city was an institution of that character—I applied to its principal, Miss Tracy, for the admission of my daughter into that Seminary.3Rochester’s Tracy Female Institute, also known as the Seward Seminary, was located on four acres of land at 45 Alexander Street, just down the block from Douglass’s home. Seward Seminary was a private institution that annually enrolled seventy-five to one hundred female students between the ages of ten and seventeen. Under the direction of Lucilia Tracy, pupils studied botany, physics, moral philosophy, history, and rhetoric. Directory for Rochester [for 1851–52], 18; Blake McKelvey, Rochester on the Genesee: The Growth of a City (Syracuse, N.Y., 1973), 54; idem, Rochester: The Flower City, 1855–1890 (Cambridge, Mass., 1949), 38; McMillan, “Mr. Editor,” 51. The principal—after making suitable enquiries into the child’s mental qualifications, and informing me of the price of tuition per term, agreed to receive the child into the school at the commencement of the September term. Here we parted. I went home, rejoicing that my child was about to enjoy advantages for improving her mind, and fitting her for a useful and honorable life. I supposed that the principal would be as good as her word—and was more disposed to h[er] belief, when I learned that she was an abolitionist—a woman of religious principles and integrity—and would be faithful in the performance of her promises, as she had been prompt in making them. In all this I have been grievously if not shamefully disappointed.

While absent from home, on a visit to Cleveland, with a view to advance the cause of education and freedom among my despised fellow countrymen4In mid-September 1848 Douglass returned from a speaking engagement at the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Cleveland, Ohio. Rochester Daily American, 16 September 1848.—with whom I am in all respects identified, the September term of the “Seward Seminary” commenced, and my daughter was promptly sent to that school.—But instead of receiving her into the school according to agreement—and as in honor the principal was bound to do, she was merely thrust into a room separate from all other scholars, and in this prison-like solitary confinement received the occasional visits of a teacher appointed to instruct her. On my return home, I found her still going to school, and not knowing the character of the treatment extended to her, I asked with a light heart, as I took her to my side, well, my daughter, how do you get on at the Seminary? She answered with tears in her eyes, “I get along pretty well, but father, Miss Tracy does not allow me to go into the room with the other scholars because I am colored.” Stung to the heart’s core by this grievous statement, and suppressing my feelings as well as I could, I went immediately to the Seminary to remonstrate with the principal against the

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cruelty and injustice of treating my child as a criminal on account of her color—subjecting her to solitary confinement because guilty of a skin not colored like her own. In answer to all that I could say against such treatment, I was answered by the principal, that since she promised to receive the child into school, she had consulted with the trustees, (a body of persons I believe unknown to the public,) and that they were opposed to the child’s admission to the school—that she thought at first of disregarding their opposition, but when she remembered how much they had done for her in sustaining the institution, she did not feel at liberty to do so; but she thought if I allowed her to remain and be taught separately for a term or more, that the prejudice might be overcome, and the child admitted into the school with the other young ladies and misses. At a loss to know what to do for the best interest of the child, I consulted with Mrs. Douglass5Anna Murray Douglass. and others, and the result of the consultation was, to take my child from the Seminary, as allowing her to remain there in such circumstances, could only serve to degrade her in her own eyes, and those of the other scholars attending the school. Before, however, carrying out my determination to withdraw the child from the Seminary, Miss Tracy, the principal, submitted the question of the child’ s reception to each scholar individually, and I am sorry to say, in a manner well calculated to rouse their prejudices against her. She told them if there was one objection to receiving her, she should be excluded; and said if any of them felt that she had a prejudice, and that that prejudice needed to be strengthened, that they might have time to whisper among themselves, in order to increase and strengthen that prejudice. To one young lady who voted to receive the child, she said, as if in astonishment; “did you mean to vote so? Are you accustomed to black persons?” The young lady stood silent; the question was so extraordinary, and withal so ambiguous, that she knew not what answer to make to it. Despite however, of the unwomanly conduct of the principal, (who, whatever may be her religious faith, has not yet learned the simplest principle of Christianity—do to others as ye would that others should do unto you)6Matt. 7:12, Luke 6:31.—thanks to the uncorruptible virtue of childhood and youth, in the fulness of their affectionate hearts, they welcomed my child among them, to share with them the blessings and privileges of the school; and when asked where she should sit if admitted, several young ladies shouted “By me, by me, by me.” After this manifestation of sentiment on the part of the scholars, one would have supposed that all opposition on the part of the principal would have ceased; but this was not the case[.] The child’s admission was subjected to a severer test. Each scholar was then told by the principal, that

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the question must be submitted to their parents, and that if one parent objected, the child would not be received into the school. The next morning my child went to school as usual, but returned with her books and other materials, saying that one person objected, and that she was therefore excluded from the Seminary.

Now, sir, these are the whole facts, with one important exception, and that fact is, that you are the person, the only person of all the parents sending young ladies and misses to that Seminary, who was hardened and mean enough to take the responsibility of excluding that child from school. I say, to you exclusively belongs the honor or infamy, of attempting to degrade an innocent child by excluding her from the benefit of attending a respectable school.

If this were a private affair, only affecting myself and family, I should possibly allow it to pass without attracting public attention to it; but such is not the case. It is a deliberate attempt to degrade and injure a large class of persons, whose rights and feelings have been the common sport of yourself, and such persons as yourself, for ages, and I think it unwise to allow you to do so with impunity.—Thank God, oppressed and plundered as we are, and have been, we are not without help. We have a press, open and free, and have ample means by which we are able to proclaim our wrongs as a people, and your own infamy, and that proclamation shall be as complete as the means in my power can make it. There is a sufficient amount of liberality in the public mind of Rochester to see that justice is done to all parties, and upon that liberality I rely. The young ladies of the school who saw the child, and had the best means of determining whether her presence in the school—room would be offensive or degrading to them, have decided in favor of admitting her, without a dissenting vote. Out of all the parents to whom the question of her admission was submitted, not one, except yourself, objected. You are in a minority of one. You may not remain so; there are perhaps others, whom you may corrupt, and make as much like yourself in the blindness of prejudice, as any ordinarily wicked person can be.

But you are still in a minority, and if I mistake not, you will be in a despised minority.—You have already done serious injury to Seward Seminary. Three young ladies left the school immediately after the exclusion of my daughter, and I have heard of three more, who had intended to go, but who have now declined going to that institution, because it has given its sanction to that anti-democratic, and ungodly caste. I am also glad to inform you that you have not succeeded as you hoped to do, in depriving my child

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of the means of a decent education, or the privilege of going to an excellent school. She had not been excluded from Seward Seminary five hours, before she was gladly welcomed into another quite as respectable, and equally christian to the one from which she was excluded. She now sits in a school among children as pure, and as white as you or yours, and no one is offended. Now I should like to know how much better are you than me, and how much better your children than mine? We are both worms of the dust,7“Worms of the dust” was a phrase made popular by Jonathan Edwards, the leading minister during the First Great Awakening, which began in New England in the 1730s and revitalized religious piety. Edwards frequently used this expression in his sermons to indicate the lowliness of humanity. Jonathan Edwards, “The Sole Consideration, That God Is God, Sufficient to Still All Objections to His Sovereignty,” in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, 10 vols. (New York, 1830), 6:296; idem, “The Excellency of Christ,” in Sermons and Discourses, 1734–1738, ed. M. X. Lesser (New Haven, Conn., 2001), 565. and our children are like us. We differ in color, it is true, (and not much in that respect,) but who is to decide which color is most pleasing to God, or most honorable among men? But I do not wish to waste words or argument on one whom I take to be as destitute of honorable feeling, as he has shown himself full of pride and prejudice.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS.

PLSr: NS, 22 September 1848. Reprinted in Lib., 6 October 1848; NASS, 12 October 1848; PaF, 19 October 1848; JNH, 10:749–52 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 485–88; Foner, Life and Writings, 1:371–74.

Date

September 22, 1848

Source

Type

Publication Status

Published