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Garfield, the Friend of a People Oppressed and Proscribed: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on September 26, 1881


D.C., ON 26 SEPTEMBER 1881

Washington , 27 September 1881. Other text in Douglass, , 524-26.

On the evening of 26 September 1881, the day of President James A. Gar-
field’s interment in Cleveland, Douglass delivered a eulogy at a memorial
service held at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.


At 7:30 P.M. William E. Matthews called the meeting to order and announced
a slate of officers headed by Douglass as president. Following the benediction
and the appointment of a committee on resolutions, Douglass addressed the
assembly. At the end of his remarks, Douglass introduced Howard University
professor Richard T. Greener who read a series of resolutions expressing the
meeting’s sympathy for the family of Garfield. John Mercer Langston spoke
next and reminisced about his friendship with Garfield during his years in
Ohio. A short talk by the Reverend William W. Hicks and a song by a choir
closed the brief service. Washington , 27 September 1881; Wash-
ington , 1 October 1881.

FRIENDS AND FELLOW-CITIZENS: To-day our common mother earth
closed over the mortal remains of James A. Garfield. The light of no day in
our history has brought a more wide-spread sense of bereavement, a deeper
sorrow, or a more profound humiliation to the American people. It seems
only as yesterday that it was my privilege to walk before James A. Garfield
through the Senate Chamber and through the Capitol of the Nation; through
its long corridors, through its grand rotunda, under its majestic dome to the
broad platform erected at its east portico, where he was greeted by tens of
thousands of his fellow-citizens, and where, amid a sea of transcendent
pomp and glory, he was inaugurated President of the United States.1In his capacity as marshal of the District of Columbia, Douglass had the responsibility of escorting both the outgoing and incoming presidents in the official procession through the U.S. Capitol during the inauguration of James A. Garfield on 4 March 1881. Douglass, , 538-39. The
scene was one never to be forgotten. It was a great day for the Nation, glad
to do honor to its Chief Magistrate; it was a great day for James A. Garfield.
He was then in the midst of his years, in the fullness of manly vigor,
covered with honors beyond the reach of princes, entering upon a career
more abundant in promise than ever invited President or potentate before.
But alas! what is the life of man? What are his hopes? What are the pomp
and glory of this world? Who can tell what an hour will bring forth? How
vain and unsubstantial do they all appear in the light of this sad experience!
Fellow-citizens, we are here to take suitable notice of this appalling event.
Our hearts have gone along with that of the Nation in every expression, in
every token and demonstration of honor for the dead and sympathy for the
living. But we have felt that something more was due from us. Our relation
to the American people makes us in some sense a peculiar class, and


devolves upon us peculiar duties; and, as such a class, we propose to put on
record this evening our sense of the great calamity that had overtaken us. I
do not claim to have been intimate with the late President. Soon after he
came to Washington I had a conversation with him of some interest to the
colored people of the United States, since it shows to some extent his
intentions toward them and presents him in the light of a wise statesman
and the friend of a people oppressed and proscribed.2This interview probably occurred at the White House on the morning of 16 March 1881. Washington , 16 March 1881; Washington , 17 March 1881; Douglass, , 542.

Early in his term I called on him, and was received kindly. He spoke of
what might be his probable policy in regard to the colored people in respect
to their position as a part of the governing element of this country. He said:

“Douglass, I mean to take a step forward, not backward. I intend to
send colored representatives not only to the colored governments but to the
white governments. How do you think that they will be received?”

“General Garfield,” I replied, “I am delighted to hear you say so. I
know that no race of people can be respected who are ignored by their own
government. I have spent some time in Europe, and I found that the farther
we get up in the grade of culture and refinement the less prejudice exists
against race.”

He then kindly offered to send me abroad, and offered me a very good
place indeed, but I told him that I did not want to leave home. There was
John M. Langston, representing the Government of Hayti,3In September 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston resident minister and consul general to Haiti and chargé d'affaires to the Dominican Republic. Langston held these offices until President Grover Cleveland accepted his resignation in July 1885. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., (New York, 1982), 384. and H.H.
Garnett at Liberia;4President Garfield appointed Henry Highland Garnet as resident minister to Liberia in July 1881. Garnet, however, had not even completed two months of official duty there before he died on 12 February 1882. , 253. but these are both colored governments. It would have
been a great gain for us if Garfield had lived and sent intelligent colored
men to represent this great Government with white governments, and
allowed them to judge of the intelligence of the colored people. I might say
more of Garfield, but it is hard to say anything new. No man has had nobler,
better things said of him than he that now lies under the sod at Cleveland.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


September 26, 1881


Yale University Press 1992



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