Skip to main content

Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass, March 21, 1852


"Heads of the Colored People," Done with a Whitewash Brush.

"Age Zographon ariste,
Graphe Zographon ariste,
Best of Painters, come away,
Paint me the whitewash brush, I pray."

If Daniel Webster, in search of the presidency, quoted New Testament Greek, why may not Communipaw draw upon old Anacreon in his endeavor to win the post of door keeper, not to the Senate, (heaven save the mark!) but to the outermost enclosure leading to the Republic of Letters? That glorious commonwealth, perpetually progressive, free from caste, and Cass and Fillmores, which smiles upon all her citizens, if they be but true, which holds triumphant sway and is crowned with perrenial laurel in the coming ages! Dear old musical Anacreon! If any doubts the music, let them read the above motto, pronouncing the first word "agge" and the "o" as in zone.


Any Sunday morning, in West Broadway, on the West side, between Anthony and Lemard streets, mid-way the block, may be seen, arranged in piles, the Sunday Herald, Sunday Dispatch, Sunday Times, Sunday Atlas, &c., &c., lying on the flat stone stoop, before the white butcher's door, which is closed, and behind a colored fisherman's stand, which is just closing up. Behind the papers, and almost part of them, is the figure of a black man, [razed] to the knees, as if for the convenient handling of his literary peltry. Rain or shine, summer and winter, sure as Sunday morning comes, there stands that figure, and the papers. He does not, like the news boys, shout out Sunday Erald Times and Courier, not he. He's none of your nomad criers in the literary world. He is a stationed vender, or, perhaps, like his class, the colored people, he noiselessly does his mission and leaves it to others to find out who and what he is. Our colored news vender kneels about four feet ten; black transparent skin, broad and swelling chest, whose symmetry proclaims Virginia birth, fine long hooked nose, evidently from the first families, wide loose mouth, sharpish face, clean cut hazel eyes, buried beneath luxuriantly folded lids, and prominent perceptive faculties. I


did not ask time to pull off cloth cap with long greasy ears, lest his brow should prove him the incontestible descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Black Sal. But nil de mortus nise—black babies and yellow, so far as Tom Jefferson is concerned; for notwithstanding the respectable and pious N.Y. Tribune, publishes, at the request of a Southern planter, (himself no doubt a literal follower of Jefferson in these matters,) all the stale anti-negroisms of Jefferson's notes. It is well known, as stated in Dr. Bacon's "Wanderings on the shores of Africa,"—I mean the Dr. Bacon who wrote the lives of the apostles—it is well known that Jefferson contradicted his philosophy of negro hate, by seeking the dalliance of black women as often as he could, and by leaving so many descendants of mixed blood, that they are to be found as widely scattered as his own writings throughout the world. One at least, a grand daughter, is a shouting Methodist, in Liberia. I have heard, from an eye witness, that on more than one occasion, when the sage of Monticello left that retreat, for the Presidential abode, at Washington, there would be on the top of the same coach, a yellow boy of his own begetting, "running away." And when told that one of his slaves was going off without leave, Jefferson said, well! let him go, his right is as good as his father's! And, somehow, that boy would get a doceur before the "parting of the ways."

Ah me! The pride of old Virginia! I might exclaim of it as Black Dan did of our Republic, Epese, Epese. "Thou hast fallen, thou hast fallen!" These crocus colored products of [illegible]philosophical lust, are now reared, and penned up, and branded, and sold, by slaveholding fathers in Old Dominion, who go to Presbyterian and Methodist churches, ane to the altars of Episcopacy, and drink the "blood which Christ shed for all;" and thank God that they are not heathen Circassians who sell their daughters as prestitutes to [Muhammalan], not Christian, lust!


But our black news-vender! He has sold nearly all his stock, poor, black, silent, and maimed as he is, (having lost both his legs by [illegible], and the surgeon's knife,) fastened near the ground by this terrific misfortune, the true heart of the American people beats kindly, and with warm sympathy towards him! and many a "b'hoy," half recovered from last night's debauch, staggers a square out of the way, to deal with him, and many a child, with half tearful eye-lid, runs across the way, passing a dozen vociferous newsboys, to buy a paper from the poor legless man; and many a dandy, who thinks, in a political sense, the negro almost a dog, snatches up a paper, and with half-averted face, throws down four times its worth, and rushes away from the human sympathy that has stolen away into his heart, in spite of, and through the chinks of the thrice-ribbed armor with which American Church and American state, "the droppings of the pulpit," and of the Senate, have endeavored to encase his affections. Merciful God! what a living fountain of human sympathy hast thou planted on that stone stoop, linking human creature to human creature, in spite of all the bars which society has vainly placed between them!

Our black news-vender has nearly sold out, and has a few moments leisure; let us have a chat.

Com.—Good morning, sir: have you a family?

News Vender.—Yes: a wife and two children; one of them, you recollect, was sick, and—What's the news in the flats?

Com.—Sharp, last night. (Here, a customer asks for the Sunday Times—all gone—Another asks for the Life of Kate Hastings; all sold, yesterday, and the demand large, at an advanced price.) Where was you born?


News Vender.—In Virginia: came from there some years ago, and followed the sea, until two years and a half ago, since which time I have sold papers. In the week-days I keep on the corner of Broadway and Duane Streets. I sell more Heralds than any other paper; and of the Sunday papers, the Despatch and Times are most called for; next, the Atlas, &c. What papers are left unsold, I dispose of, at thirty one cents a hundred, for waste paper. My profits on the dailies, are from one-fourth, to a cent each; on the Sunday papers, one cent. My wife goes down in the mornings, to buy the papers, and I can judge very nearly, of the quantity that will sell."

Com.—You came from Virginia—free, of course?

News Vender.—Why—yes—I—made myself free.

Com.—Have you no fears of being arrested and taken back!

News Vender.—Not now, (sadly looking at his maimed legs.) When I stood six feet two in my stockings, and heard talk of Virginians hereabouts, I would go straight to the dock, take ship, and be away two or three months; but now—what would they want with me?

Com.—Do you deal in policies?

News Vender.—No. Or I should not be free.

Com.—Do you save any money?

News Vender.—Yes. Last summer, a year ago, and winter, I saved up fifteen dollars; but was taken sick and most of it went; but now I am coming up again. I wish to get a place, a stand or shop in doors to sell papers and stationery; when the weather is cold and frosty, my stump troubles me and may lay me up.

Com.—How did you lose your legs?

News Vender.—On board ship Tuscarora, on her passage from Liverpool to New York. We were cast away on the coast of New Jersey; three were lost, and two others, with myself, badly frozen. The shop was a total loss: my legs were so badly frozen that I was obliged to have them amputated below the knees.


Com.—When did this happen—what month?

News Vender.—I—let me see—forget the time exactly, but it was Christmas Eve, two years ago.

"Christmas Eve, two years ago! 1849!"—The tears rushed from my eyes: for on that very night, when the poor sailor struggled with the cold and storm, and met his terrible misfortune, there came into my household a messenger for my first born: sweet, patient little sufferer, after a year of hopes and fears, and deep agony; in the intervals from distress, that day her young hopes were gladdened with to-morrow's Christmas tree and the expected adornings from a mother's loving hand. But long ere midnight came,

There sat the Shadow feared of man
* * * * * *
And spread his mantle, dark and cold,
And wrapped her formless in the fold,
And dulled the murmur on her lip.

News Vender! you must have a shop. Your story must be printed and sold. A little place must be hired. And your first stock in trade shall be purchased from the sum left behind by the little girl who found rest in heaven, while you manfully met and battled with your severest ill on earth.

Forgive me, dear Douglass, for writing so much; but I cannot close without drawing attention to the moral which grows out of the black News Vender's history. There is hope in it for all who, like him, are battling against slavery and caste. There need be no fear in particularizing his whereabouts, for I defy all Virginia to 'come and take' his trunk and arms—legs he has none. Compliments to Ethiop.

Yours affectionately,


New York, March 21st, 1852.


Smith, James McCune (1813–1865)




Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 25 March 1852. Relates story about  black news vendor.


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


Frederick Douglass' Paper



Publication Status



Frederick Douglass' Paper