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Ethiop [William J. Wilson] to Frederick Douglass, April 7, 1854




BROOKLYN HEIGHTS, April 7th, 1854.

MY DEAR DOUGLASS:—In the whirl and excitement of the present hour, I may not write very acceptably to you. I say whirl and excitement; their existence is, however, at present, within my own brain only. Let me come as near as I can to the cause. The latter end of the season has been in the "church city" (Brooklyn,) unusually gay, both in the bleached or what is commonly called white, and colored, or black circles; the former in Gotham, about 5th Avenue and vicinity only being able to keep pace with Brooklyn; I mean not in the gaudy show, or profane and needless extravagance; but in neat, pretty companies, and high social enjoyment; such as make our hearts the lighter, and us the better. In polished colored circles, (and there are such things here,) there is a frankness, and freedom of manners, and a careless abandonment without any breach of true politeness rarely to be found anywhere else. None of that looking down from above; none of that haughty mien, that pervades the 5th Avenue, and kindred localities; where cotton bales, and cotton mills, sugar boxes, and molasses casks, tobacco and brandy, tape and negro cloth, have enabled poor worms of the dust, to crawl from low poverty up to corrupting riches; without knowing scarcely better, how really, to enjoy it than the little barking animals in their back yard kennels, or the larger ones in their stables; certainly not as well as their cooks, drivers, and waiting men. Think of mean, shriveled, grasping propensity, growing and fattening on others sweat and toil, till its own bloated proportions dare not allow it to look back to its former self, for fear that former self will laugh at, and rebuke it ; think of such, pent up between towers of stone and brick, or,

Trembling as he ventures forth, lest he o'erhear
Something whispering, say I knew him once;

you have a faint idea of 5th Avenue and vicinity, and Gotham aristocracy. Modest and church-going gentlemen, locate in the "Church City," (Brooklyn,) in the vicinity of the "Heights." With what amount of cotton they are stuffed, Ethiop saith not.—


Sewing circles here very modestly take the place of fashionable and meaningless parties, and two birds are killed with one stone.—Needle work is here done for poor children, and a nice cosey little cotillion or country dance or what not, had after needles are cushioned and thimbles pocketed; brothers, cousins, &c., having by this time arrived, and the Parsons and Deacons, stepped in the back parlor, to arrange for the next week's session, or prayer-meeting, or something of that sort. Upon much of this, the colored circles in the "Church City" endeavor to improve; with what success, Ethiop deigns not to say. The quiet and profitable enjoyment which we thought complete, was, however, overmatched the other evening; so far, at least, as relates to magnitude; and as fair an exhibit of the Belles and Beauty; and a glimpse of colored life in Gotham. I cannot forbear to give a passing notice. The entertainment was given by our glorious old friend Downing, of Broad and Wall Street notoriety; and one of the leading magnets there for at least a score and a half years. It was given in honor of a very distinguished lady, late of Philadelphia, now of the East, and a New Yorker by birth, and of Knicke[r]bocker stock; and the throng, old and young, grave and gay, gathered around her, must have awakened many a pleasant recollection of the past. At eleven o'clock, the company had mostly arrived—Ethiop bringing up the rear. Retiring to an unobtrusive corner, I had a fine opportunity for observation:

While 'mid the gathered crowd, some scarce remembered face
Would call many a long forgotten thought to mind;
They little thought, these gentle folks,
T'was Ethiop, 'mong them taking notes

I would not invade the sanctity of private society, still I must be permitted to say, that a larger number of handsome women and fine looking men, in one assembly, it has seldom been my lot to see. Handsome and fine looking, are words scarcely adequate to portray my meaning. I challenge the bleached, or usually termed white circles, to produce an equal array of beauty; and in this I mean no vain or fulsome boast. They, when assembled, present a sameness; a dead flat; with very little variation, save in the color of the hair and eyes; and clothes over shrunken and often crooked proportions; we present a beautiful variety of face and feature,


and forms unsurpassed. It is a fact, perhaps little known, that dressmakers and tailors, have very little to do in the way of padding
and wadding for the forms of colored persons, while the opposite class on the contrary, is partially made up that way. But to proceed. Here were matronly ladies; round, plump dames, that are really good to behold; and young ladies whom, to my unpractised eyes, seemed not more than sixteen, but who, a lady friend assured me, had long since passed that meridian, and were married, and had husbands too, many of them. Their fresh and youthful appearance is, I hope an evidence that a change is being effected in colored society. That our women drudgeless outside for a temporary and often useless advantage, and stay at home and attend to their husbands, and household duties; which is a real advantage, and one step towards true economy and reform. May these hopes be realizations. There was another seeming change. The young Bucks, though well dressed, and with a goodly share of the tinsel about them, yet were less flashy than formerly; another step, I hope, in the right direction. But oh! the music, the sweet music of the Harps, (not David's of solemn sound; Harps have changed since then,) to which, in the dance, the merry dance, the giddy, giddy dance,

Many a light fantastic toe
Tripped o'er the carpet soft.

Silk and satins, muslins and lace, gracefully enveloping Nymphs, Sylphs, Floras, Clios, Hebes and Venuses, who flitted by, even more gracefully, while the more stately Jupiters, Saturns, Neptunes, and Mercuries, of the night, whirled along in fine orbitual motion,The Fixed Stars, (and these not a few,) remained in the distance, and no Diamond's point ever glittered so like them, each a sun and centre of some little social system. I gazed upon the splendid pageantry around and about me, till at length my transit was from fact to reverie, from reverie to bewilderment. I remember the jingle of glasses, the popping of Champaign, the delicious taste of creams, jellies, &c.; and the hum of sweet voices; and gather enough of my scattered senses to say, that one style of dance I saw, Schot—something, (I own I cannot remember the jaw-breaking name, perhaps the dancers can,) so far from pleasing, quite horrified me. This it may be, was owing to Ethiop's ignorant notions of city propriety. Colored society in Gotham is comparatively a composite of gaiety, glitter, and rollicking fun; in the Church City it is pleasant, rather intellectual, stately; the tongue performing what mostly the heels do in Gotham. The Church City circles, colored I mean, lack a complement of the young, much to the detriment of this class, and their own disadvantage; Gotham happily blends all ages in her circles. Hoping in all this, my dear Douglass, I have not transcended the bounds of propriety, let me close by saying, colored life in Gotham is truly worthy the study of a Philosopher.

Yours, truly,



Wilson, William J. (Ethiop)


April 7, 1854


Ethiop [William J. Wilson] to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick Douglass P, 14 April 1854. Describes black high society in Brooklyn, including a party attended by many of the city’s elite.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


Frederick Douglass' Papers, 14 April 1854



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