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Hoping Against Hope: Testimony Delivered in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 1880



U.S. Congress, Senate, Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, Senate Report No. 440, 46th Cong., 2d sess., 1880, 258-59.

On 19 February 1880 Douglass returned to the Capitol to make further testi-
mony to the Select Senate Committee investigating the dissolution of the
Freedman’s Bank. Anson M. Sperry and Charles B. Purvis, former first vice
president of the Bank, also testified. The committee’s hearings led to passage
of new legislation that abolished the three-member commission and placed
the comptroller of the currency in charge of liquidating the Bank’s assets and
repaying its depositors. Ultimately only about thirty thousand depositors
received any reimbursement and eighteen thousand of the original sixty-one
thousand received the maximum refund of 62 percent of their money back.
Gilbert, “Comptroller of the Currency and the Freedman’s Savings Bank,”


Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, there were some questions
put to me the other day as to whether I had uttered, while president of the
Freedman’s Bank, certain circulars commending the bank to favor, and I
believe, Senator (addressing Mr. Garland),1Augustus Hill Garland. you asked me if those circulars
were still in existence. I have been able to find two of them. I believe there
was a third, which I do not find. One is that which I issued immediately on
going into the bank, and the other was published a few weeks subsequently
in the columns of the New York Herald. The third I do not find.

Mr. SPERRY.2Anson M. Sperry. I beg pardon, Mr. Douglass, but I think you issued only
the two.

Mr. DOUGLASS. I issued, I think, three, but I have not found the other;
at any rate, I offer the two to the committee.

Mr. SPERRY. I do not think you ever issued any besides the two you
have here presented.

Mr. DOUGLASS. Well, I issued one that was published in the New York
Herald, commending its justice in defending the bank.

I will say that I wrote these circulars after the legislation by which the
bank was brought to a close, requiring that the new deposits should be put
by themselves, and should not be used in liquidation of the debts due to old
depositors. Then, again, there was a hope that the bank might go on; and I
gathered, from my inquiries among the officers of the bank, that it might
possibly go on, and it was thought that I might possibly inspire confidence
by writing a circular, and I wrote these circulars which I have brought here,
under the hope—hoping against hope3Douglass paraphrases a line from James Montgomery's poem The World Before the Flood (1812), Canto V, Stanza 10, line 28. The Poetical Works of James Montgomery, 3 vols. (London, 1825), 2: 83.—that we might be able to resusci-
tate the bank. I was anxious, of course, if the bank could go on, to have it go
on, and all the officers of the bank, the clerks and the actuary and all
parties, were, of course, desirous to see the bank go on. And I, especially,
under the influence of my old friend, Wilson,4William J. Wilson. whom I had known many
years before, had more faith perhaps than some others in the possibility of
the going on of the bank and the ultimate success of it, and was, from these
considerations, induced to write the circulars. They will speak for them-
selves. They do not show any overweening confidence in the success of the
institution, though I based my hope of its success upon the statements of



In respect to the personal feeling existing between Mr. Stickney5George W. Stickney. and
myself, I have to say that there has never been anything personal between
us of a hostile or unfriendly sort. Whatever feeling I entertained towards
Mr. Stickney arose out of our relations to each other in business. When I
stepped on the deck of the bank it was in full running trim, like a ship at sea,
with all its halyards and all its spars in their places, or out of their places.
They were considerably mixed. I found the same trouble when I went into
the bank that has been found by the experts. Indeed, experts were even then
engaged—l knew but very little about it myself—in trying to ascertain a
difference on the books of some forty thousand dollars, when I stepped in
there.6Freedman’s Bank inspector Anson M. Sperry reported to a special investigating committee of the House of Representatives in 1876 that in his 1870 inspection of the Washington branch he “found a difference between the ledgers and the general account of some $80,000, and by our best endeavors and the employment of additional expert force, we were never able to reduce this difference below, say, $40,000." He attributed the deficit to unreliable bookkeeping practices. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Freedman’s Bank, House Report No. 502, 44th Cong., 1st sess., 1876, 2-7; Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy and Fraud, 168.

Dr. PURVIS.7Charles Burleigh Purvis (1842-1929) was the son of Douglass’s old black abolitionist associate Robert Purvis and Harriet Forten, a daughter of the wealthy black Philadelphia sailmaker James Forten and an active abolitionist herself. Raised on his family's farm in Byberry, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, Purvis attended Oberlin College for two years and then the Western Reserve Medical School, where he graduated in 1865. He served as an assistant surgeon in the Union army with the rank of first lieutenant. Beginning in 1868, Purvis held a professorship of medicine at Howard University. He also was assistant surgeon (1866-81) and then surgeon and chief administrator (1881-94) of the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. As a trustee of the Freedman's Bank, Purvis, more than any of his colleagues, criticized the activities of men later found guilty of fraud. When the trustees elected Douglass president in 1874, they chose Purvis as his first vice president. Purvis’s active career in Washington ended in 1905 when he moved to Boston, where he practiced medicine. Herbert M.nMorais, The History of the Negro in Medicine (New York, 1967), 50-52; “The Forten Family," NHB, 10: 75-79, 95 (January 1947); Simmons, Men of Mark, 691; Gerri Major, Black Society (Chicago, 1976), 169; Fleming, Freedmen's Savings Bank, 83; Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy and Fraud, 165-66; DANB, 507-08. Do you refer to the Washington branch?

Mr. DOUGLASS. Yes, sir; I refer to the Washington branch. And that
fact of itself disturbed me a good deal, and caused me to limp a little along.
But my friends here said, “Stand by your guns,” and my old friend Whip-
per,89William Whipper. of Philadelphia, who had charge of the branch bank there, was
writing to me continually to “stand by my guns.”9Douglass adapts a phrase originally found in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, 1: 391.


There was no feeling as against Mr. Stickney personally at all, and
when I alluded the other day to the fact that this cipher in the hands of the
actuary was not explained to me, I stated the reason—at least the ostensible
reason—why they were not explained. The fact is, Mr. Stickney, as I said
the other day, was at the time a very busy man. He was very much engaged
out and in, and was scarcely half an hour at a time in the bank that he was
not fully engaged, and I suppose he might have made satisfactory explana-
tions if I had followed the matter up. However, they were not explained to
me, and I had some reason, perhaps, at one time, for thinking that there
was some design in not explaining that cipher to me. It was when I made an
inquiry, on a certain occasion, concerning the meaning of some word or
phrase in the telegraphic correspondence in question, that I observed a look
between Mr. Stickney and a young Mr. Wormley10Probably a son of James T. Wormley, a prosperous black hotel owner in Washington, D.C. His eldest son, William H. A. Wormley (1842-?), was a trustee of the Bank and worked as a bookkeeper. William along with his brothers Garrett Smith Wormley (1846-?) and James Thompson Wormley (1844-?) eventually became associated with their father‘s hotel and catering business. Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia . . . 1873 (Washington, D.C., 1873), 502; Major, Black Society, 136, 147, 232-33; Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy and Fraud, 183-84, 191. who was in our employ,
that it was “something for us to know and not for him to know.” I told Mr.
Stickney of it at the time, or soon afterwards; at any rate I told him of it in
the board of trustees. So that there is no personal feeling at all in the matter.
I desire to see that young gentleman flourish. I have no sort of personal
antipathy against him whatever.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


February 19, 1880


Yale University Press 1991



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