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Collection of Funds for Sumner Portrait: an Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 1873


ON 11 APRIL 1873

Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, 12 April 1873. Other texts in New National Era, 17
April 1873; Washington National Republican, 12 April 1873.

On the evening of 16 April 1873 Douglass and several other prominent black
citizens of Washington, D.C., met at Lincoln Hall to consider the decision of
the newly formed Board of Trustees for Colored Schools to rescind the resolu-
tion by the previous Board to purchase a portrait of Senator Charles Sumner
for the Sumner School. The meeting, which attracted an audience of three
hundred persons, was called to order at 8:00 P.M. by George T. Downing, who
read the names of the officers of the committee formed to examine the recent
action of the Board and then introduced Daniel Augustus Straker, the first
speaker. Straker read a letter from Wendell Phillips to J. B. Smith, a member
of the Massachusetts legislature, and reviewed the action of the old and new
Boards regarding the purchase of the Sumner portrait. John F. Cook read six
resolutions supporting the action of the old Board, and they were unanimously
adopted. Downing then introduced Douglass, who was warmly received. At
the conclusion of Douglass’s address, Downing invited contributions from the
audience and, according to the Daily Morning Chronicle, “more than the
amount required . . . was obtained at once.” After Professor John Mercer
Langston of Howard University praised everyone present for their contribu-
tion, Douglass was appointed to the committee to oversee the portrait fund.
The meeting was then adjourned.


Since the call for this public meeting was published in the newspapers of
this city, those with whom it originated have been subjected to a perfect
stream of unfair and unfriendly criticism.1On 6 April 1873, Douglass, George T. Downing. and other black citizens of Washington, D.C., met at Downing's house to call for a public meeting in Lincoln Hall to consider the move of the new Board of Trustees for Colored Schools in rescinding the five hundred dollars allotted for a life-sized portrait of Charles Sumner which the previous Board had commissioned. The next issue of the Washington Evening Star defended the new board's action: “This is no time to invite and encourage careless and unwarranted expenditure of public money devoted to a specific purpose." About three hundred persons attended the 11 April public meeting to hear speeches by Douglass, Downing, James T. Worrnley, Daniel A. Straker, and John Mercer Langston. The meeting resolved to support the Sumner portrait and to raise money through individual subscription. On the previous night, the Board of Trustees for Colored Schools had met in special session and pledged support for the portrait as long as funding came from sources other than school funds. Washington Evening Star, 7, 11 April 1873; Washington National Republican, 12 April 1873; NNE, 17 April 1873. It has been freely charged that it
sprung from unworthy motives; from a chronic love of notoriety; from
personal spite; from a desire to make a little political capital; from a restless
and disorganizing spirit of agitation; from the rivalry of certain families,
which oppose each other without regard to the right or wrong of the
measure about which they differ (cries of “That’s what’s the matter;”) from
a class of persons stigmatized as carpet-baggers, who pay no taxes, and
have no interest in the affairs of this District. These criticisms touch me
nowhere. I am not ashamed of this meeting, nor of the humble part I have
taken in bringing it about. We are here in the interest of a sentiment which
needs no apology. We are here to render honor to one to whom honor is
due2Rom. 13: 7. (applause), and to see that no action of any part of our fellow-citizens
shall place us in a false and reprehensible position before the country. My
mission to this meeting is a very simple one, and soon told. I have not been
drawn here by any love of notoriety or fondness for speech-making. l have
had quite enough of both, and would even now gladly be excused from
anything more of the sort. I have not come here to abuse or discredit the
Board of Trustees for Colored Schools. Like every other colored citizen of
this District, who has the good of his race at heart, I desire to maintain the
honor and dignity of that Board. They may not need my support, but I
would rather praise than blame, rather applaud than denounce, rather build
up than pull down those in authority.

This amiable feeling, however, ought not and shall not stand in the way
of my stating my honest difference with the action of the Board in the
matter of the Sumner picture. When the Board of Trustees, as originally


constituted, voted to purchase a portrait of Hon. Charles Sumner, to be
placed in the Sumner School Building, I was out of the city, away off in the
State of Maine,3Douglass lectured in Rockland, Maine, on 15 March 1873, and in Belfast, Maine, on 17 March 1873. Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, 15 March 1873. but the lightning brought me the news, and I was deeply
interested in it. It struck me as a fit and beautiful tribute to Mr. Sumner, and
an excellent proof of the gratitude and constancy of my race to benefactors.
(Applause.) It never occurred to me that there was or could be any serious
objection to that measure of justice and gratitude. It was one of those
simple marks of appreciation which not even the bitterest opponent could
deny to Mr. Sumner, and which even the enemies and contemners of the
negro would feel bound to respect. It was therefore with surprise and pain
that I read the proceedings of the Board of Trustees of Colored Schools,
since its enlargement, revoking the action of the previous Board, and thus
deciding not to purchase the portrait. l have tried to give the action of the
Board in this matter an impartial consideration, and to give their arguments
their full weight. It is said that it is not the business of the Board to
commemorate public men, however worthy, and if this were done in the
case of Mr. Sumner consistency would require that it be done in the case of

Well, suppose we adopt this line of argument. It amounts only to this:
We deny to one what belongs to all; because we cannot put a portrait of the
late Thaddeus Stevens in the Stevens School Building, therefore we will
not put a portrait of Charles Sumner in the Sumner School Building;
because we cannot pay all that we owe, we will not pay any. This is the sum
and substance of the whole argument. A truer and better position is this: If
we cannot do all that we would, we will do all that we can. This would at
least show that we have a right feeling toward all. (“That’s so.”) Sufficient
unto the day is the evil thereof.4Douglass quotes Matt. 6: 34. Let us do what we can and leave the rest to
events. A man who will not pay a just debt to one of his creditors proves
that he would be dishonest toward all. (“You’re right.”)

But this portrait was more than a tribute to Mr. Sumner. It was in its
nature an adornment to the school. In these latter days it has been dis-
covered that school-houses should be more than wood and stone. They
ought to suggest great ideas—thought, taste, and refinement. Owing to the
depths of degradation from which we have come, no people need such
suggestions more than we. In this picture after-coming generations of our


people would see a great scholar as well as a great statesman. It would be a
lesson of faith in their own worth and in their own possibilities. Sumner’s
picture would stand for the great and all-commanding ideas which have
given shape to our national destiny. Among all the vast strides which the
republic has taken toward justice to the colored race there is not one in
which it has not been anticipated and led by Charles Sumner. (Tremendous

It may be said that a picture is a very small thing. This is a great
mistake. Man is a picture-making animal, and the only picture-making
animal in the world. Pictures do play and have played an important part in
the grand drama of civilization. Pictures have a power akin to song. Give
me the making of a nation’s ballads and I care not who has the making of
the laws.5Douglass paraphrases a saying of Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish essayist. Andrew Fletcher, The Political Works of Andrew Fletcher, Esq. of Saltoun (Glasgow, 1749), 266. The same may be said of pictures. In the last election the
President of this Republic was made by pictures, and the whole Liberal
Republican party was unmade by pictures.6In the 1872 presidential contest, cartoonist Thomas Nast "unmade" Horace Greeley, the candidate of the Liberal Republican and Democratic parties, by his relentless lampooning of Greeley in the popular Harper's Weekly. While Nast’s drawings of Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican incumbent, were strictly heroic, he caricatured Greeley’s running mate, B. Gratz Brown, as a nonentity, and the Democrats and Liberal Republicans as conspirators against national and northern interests. Nast perhaps stretched the bounds of taste in the ridicule he heaped on Greeley, who once remarked that even he was unsure whether he was running for the presidency or the penitentiary. Thomas Nast St. Hill, Thomas Nast: Cartoons and Illustrations (New York, 1974), 32; Albert Bigelow Paine, Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures (New York, 1904), 246-61; Morton Keller, The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast (New York, 1968), 75-78. The picture of Charles Sumner
in the Sumner School Building, looking benignantly down upon the sable
children for whom he has done so much, would have fitly held his life and
labors in memory, and would have acted as a power for good.

It is said that the Board of Trustees have no right to appropriate money
for any other than educational purposes; and here I agree with the Board
entirely. They certainly have no right to appropriate money committed to
their care to any other than educational purposes. My complaint is that they
have construed the law under which they act with unreasonable and un-
seasonable strictness in the present instance. Education is a large word, and
means much more than some men imagine. There are tongues in trees,
books in the running brooks, sermons in stones,7As You Like It, act 2, sc. 1, lines 16-17. and lessons of education
in portrait. A picture of Charles Sumner on the walls of the Sumner School
Building would be a tongue (applause), a book (applause), and a sermon


(renewed applause) to every beholder. It would have told our dusky chil-
dren the story of their deliverance in substance and in detail, and through
what labor and suffering that deliverance was wrought out.

A refusal to place it there, a vote to countermand a previous order for
placing it there, looked like an effort to tear from the pale brow of Sumner a
well-earned and never-forfeited laurel—a rude insult to a life-long bene-
factor—an ungracious rebuke where only grateful commendation was
deserved. Mind, I do not say that this, or that anything like this, was
intended. Men’s motives, like the ways of Providence, are often myste-
rious8Douglass adapts the first line of the hymn “Light Shining Out of Darkness," by William Cowper. Bailey, Poems of William Cowper, 56. and past finding out. (A voice, “Now you’re talking.”) I speak
simply of the action itself. Upon its face it was a rude and disgraceful
response to the manifest claims of gratitude, all the more reprehensible
because it seemed to second the effort made in other quarters to degrade
and discredit the man at whom it was aimed. Mr. Sumner is a sick man. His
life is suspended upon a doubtful thread. Any moment the lightning may
flash the sad news to the country that the great Senator of Massachusetts
has finished his course on the earth.9Senator Sumner's health had never completely recovered from the assault by Preston Brooks in 1855, and was especially poor in 1872 and 1873, when he also suffered the trauma of censure proceedings directed against him by the Massachusetts state legislature. Sumner died in March of the following year. ACAB, 5: 747-48; NCAB, 3: 300.

I am not here to invoke a compassion for him, to praise him, or to
solicit a monument for him while living or when dead. His consciousness
of a life well spent lifts him beyond range of our pity. His praise is a
redeemed and regenerated nation, and his monument—the broken fetters
of four millions of our race. (Prolonged applause.)

It is said that by calling this meeting to express our dissent from the
action of this Board we unduly magnify its importance. This is a great
mistake. This Board is supposed to represent the very best intelligence and
moral worth of the colored citizens of this District. (Derisive applause.) To
their hands are committed the progress and enlightenment of our children.
(Laughter.) Their proceedings are given to the swift wings of the press, and
their influence is not merely Territorial, but national. It is, therefore, of
very great importance that their action should be always right, and when
wrong it is the duty of those who feel themselves aggrieved or misrepre-
sented in a proper spirit to set them right, and to undo, if possible, whatever
wrong they may have committed.


Happily for all parties in the present case this can be very easily done.
We, the colored citizens of the District, poor as we may be, can raise the
$500 to purchase this picture without touching one cent of the school fund.
We shall thus relieve the Board of Trustees from any embarrassment on the
score of improper appropriation, commend the sentiment that men ought to
be just before they are generous, and at the same time prove to the world
that we are worthy of our advocate, benefactor, and champion, who is even
now suffering from assassin blows (tremendous applause) received for
daring to stand up in our defense when friends were few and foes were
many and strong. This is the true and proper solution of the question
between ourselves and the Board, and it is one in which we can unite and all
can rest satisfied.

He closed his speech by suggesting that the money be raised then and
there for the purchase of a portrait of Hon. Charles Sumner.10After the meeting, donations were collected from the assembly. Douglass and his sons each contributed five dollars. Washington National Republican, 12 April 1873.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


April 11, 1873


Yale University Press 1991



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