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Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass, April 10, 1852


Heads of the Colored People.—No. 2.

THE BODY-BLACK:—Passing up Varick Street, to early mass, this morning, my eyes caught the glance and bow of the most distinguished [illegible] our city boasts of. On he went, with stride as steady as a walking [beam], the same smile beaming from his face that must have been stamped thereon at birth—"if," so Harriet Martineau says of John C. Calhoun, "he ever was born." Man and boy I have know that stride and that smile as long, if not longer than my earliest recollection of—[illegible]. I don't know that he ever stood still long enough to be measured; yet he must be rising six feet: complexion, that of a hazel-tint: for he has been bleached by climate to a fairer hue than that of his great grandfather, who was imported directly from Africa to the Livingston Manor, on which he and his descendants formed part of the live stock, until Governor Tompkins caused the New York Legislature to raise them up to the rank of free men and women.

Our boot-black, finding himself in possession of himself on Emancipation day, 1827, and being of a misfaring turn, took sloop and cruise down to the city. In those days, New York had barely reached Canal Street: Greenwith, Wall Street and Broadway echoed to the stately tread of the [illegible] and powdered Clintons, Jays, H[illegible], Vander[illegible], &c., &c. Vast kitchens, with huge hickory fires, formed the sparking ground of colored youth fresh from the country. Into these, our youngster plunged with his stride and smile. His most "grateful memories"


are [illegible] of a Sunday afternoon church at St. Philips, with a walk down Broadway by way of digesting the sermon of the venerable [illegible]. That memorable walk! His blue cloth coat and double gilt brass buttons! And the silks that rustled by his side. And how he felled to the ground an impudent "bull face" who looked [illegible] at his companion in the promenade! And the adjournment to the vast kitchen; the good things piled upon the table, the sweetmeats, the [illegible]! the [illegible]! the [hissing] urn! the pleasant chat, at first about the "deep [illegible]," then gradually warming into [illegible] courtship! and such courtship! None of your Mexican warfare with the artillery of the ages fired at long distances, but the [illegible] that are [illegible]," which our honored friend, Dr. Dewey, in his problems of Human D[illegible], "declares to be a [illegible]


for the lords of [illegible] of a higher [illegible].

Of course all this courtship terminated in a wedding." Our humble pair took a front basement, from which protruded a long pole, with well polished boot dangling from his end: and along side the cellar door, a [illegible] piece of tin announced "Washing and Ironing done by Mrs.———;" for he had already found a "help-meet." At first, business was slow with him, and both were dependent on the [illegible] of the laundress; but in course of time, as her approach to the wash-tub became clumsy, or as dear Watty Scott has is, "her step grew heavy and her face grew pale." the boots poured into our friend's laboratory, and comfort after comfort, and curious little preparations for the interesting event gathered into the easy apartment.

The soul of the boot-black, recently stirred up with the energies of newly gotten freedom, fairly dilated with speculations about the new comer. He felt his own calling, however, honest, to be looked upon.—His child—for with the usual puissance of a lord of creation, it was sure to be a boy—should be a shopkeeper at least: he felt his own ignorance, for New York slaves were not taught to read,) his boy should have as much learning as money could buy; he should read the newspapers, keep his father's accounts (now chalked in tallies inside the cellar door) in a fair account book, and write as many hand writings as a lawyer!


These hopes and resolutions gave renewed force and longer reach to his studies, as he bowled along with his long pole of boots through the streets, and let new vigor to his right arm as he laid on the polishing brush: his customer's boots shone brighter, and were more promptly delivered than any others; and such men as the Lawrences, the Jays, the Goulets, &c., became his walking advertisements in the streets, the parlors and the counting rooms.

A thorough churchman, although unable to read, he knew the responses by heart; and once and again, when the Rev. Peter Williams held forth in the lofty pulpit of St. Philips, our boot-black's vision extended into the coming years, and actually caught his own sunny smile, perched in a younger head, waging in the pulpit!

When examination day came in Mr. Andrew's school, the boot-black was always there; he had a prospective interest at stake; and when he saw little boys, with tight heads and dark complexions, stand upon a platform, before a multitude of white people, and read out loud in books, and spell out loud, with closed books, and say geography, and cipher on the black-board, and more than all, "speak pieces" about liberty, and never seem afraid—why, then, his eye would glisten, and his soul struggle with the past wrong done him in slavery, and the coming glory when,


But, when the hour of peril came, and the nurse, and the doctor, the boy expectant turned out—a girl in case! And so did the next, and the next multiple go to pile proof on proof that the boot-black was, in the opinion of the old woman, a man "for it takes a man," &c. These successive mal-arrivals from fairy land, only added to the energies of our hero: the stride went through the street, and the arms went in the laboratory—now a separate apartment from his kitchen parlor and above ground, yet at a most economical rent.

Manfully has he fulfilled the anti-natal promises touching the education of his children: his first born is now a grown up young lady, well skilled in English, French, Drawing and Music, and supports herself by teach[ing] a private school of her own, assisted by her only surviving sister, and pupil.

He owns a fine property in sight of the Manor on which he was "raised," and on which, but for Gov. Tompkins, he and his children might have remained in brutal ignorance.

He knew, years ago, that his calling was looked down upon, but wiser than dandy opinion, he found it and has proved it—Ethiop and Horace Greeley to the contrary notwithstanding—well fitted for him to exercise by means of it, all the faculties which make a man useful to this family and a credit to the State: he was willing, in that peculiar philosophy, for which poor old St. Philips has been so [illegible] berated, to stoop to conquer, and he has conquered; and he laughs to scorn the vaporing principle martyrs who would rather starve for good physical or mental, than handle a shoe-brush. But I must hold, or [illegible] will be in, and the telegraph will fly from Temple to Atlantic street again.


I also said, in the commencement, that his stride had ever been steady as a walking beam, so it ever was, save once, when the Warwick of St. Philips made him church-warden! He stepped differently then thro' the venerable aisles, and did not carry the plate as if it were a boot-tree.

The boot-polisher, like the word-polisher, has a life with a few incidents: stormy and muddy weather rile him, by impeding the polishing process; alterations in the shape of the boot put him to the expense of changing his trees a little, and when patent leather first came into fashion, he had a world of anxiety, which wore away with the cracks and scales which defaced the new article. Since elected church-warden, he has exchanged his boot-pole for a covered basket in which he 'fetches and carries' boots.

As a class, boot-polishers are thrifty, energetic, progressive. Free muscles, steadily exercised, produce free thought, energy, progress. One former boot-black, is now a merchant tailor in Newark; another a self-relying farmer in Essex County. It is the calling which has produced the best average colored men and has made men of character, not of wealth.


Ethiop was so tickled at my little philippic, that he employed the first of April in making soap bubbles therewith. He forgot, however, as they rose in the air, the law of optics which causes these little spheres to reflect back from their surface what is outside of them; hence, he mistook his own beautiful face and cheerful imagery for mine, as they danced back in rainbow hues upon his delighted vision. Thus, our own thoughts, coming back to us, in roseate coloring, have a certain affinity to us, the inklings of paternity, which readily gains for them admission, as subjective truths.

Stephen Myers, and James Randolph passed this morning with Horace Greeley in his sanctum, and had a remendours spree on bran bread and [illegible]. Myers, having well fortified his stomach with whig [illegible], before

*Why is it that from Protestant slavery, the freed men seek [illegible]; from Catholic slavery, they are content with pl[illegible]?




[illegible] to hear that Robert [illegible] even if he [illegible] his [illegible].


Bayard Taylor, has [illegible] the heart of Africa [illegible] a negro. The [illegible] delight, [illegible]. [...] Much complexion, which travelers say, is, within the tropics, by far, the finest for the human 'face divine.' I fear it is that [homeopathic] infusion of white dutch blood, paraded by him in Italian, which [illegible] the perfect bounty of my friend on the heights.

Yours sleepily,


New York, April 10th, 1852.


Smith, James McCune (1813–1865)




Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass. PLeSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 15 April 1852. Defends dignity of menial labor.


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


Frederick Douglass' Paper



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Frederick Douglass' Paper