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Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass, June 17, 1852


Heads of the Colored People.—No. 3.


Saturday night! Dunk! goes the smoothing iron, then a swift gliding sound as it passes smoothly over starched bosom and collar, and wrist-bands, of one of the many dozen [shirts] that hang round the room on horses, chairs, lines and every other thing capable of being hanged on. Dunk! dunk! goes the iron, sadly, wearily, but steadily, as if the very heart of toil were throbbing its penultimate beats! Dunk! dunk! and that small and delicately formed hand and wrist swell up with knotted muscles and bursting veins! And the eye and brow, chiselled out for stern resolve and high thought, the one now dull and haggard, and the other, seamed and blistered with deep furrows and great drops of sweat wrung out by over toil.

The apartment is small, hot as an oven, the air in it thick and misty with the steam rising from the ironing tables in the corners, under the tables, and in all out-of-the-way places, are stowed tubs of various sizes, some empty, some full of clothes soaking for next-week's labor. On the walls hang pictures of old Pappy Thompson, or Brother Paul, or Sammy Cornish: in one corner of the room, a newly varnished mahogany table is partly filled with books—Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Watts' Hymns, the Life of Christ, and a nice 'greasy novel' just in from the circulating library: between the windows stand an old bureau, the big drawer of which is the larder, containing sundry slices of cold meat, second handed toast, 'with butter on it,' and the carcase of a turkey, the return cargo of a basket of clothes sent down town


that morning. But even this food is untasted; for, the Sabbath approaches, and the old Zion, and the vivid doses of hell fire ready to be showered from the pulpit, on all who 'do labor' (saving the parson, who does pound the reading board in a style which, to the unsanctified, looks like hard work) on the Day of Rest. Dunk! dunk!! goes the smoothing iron, the frame of the washerwoman bends again to her task, her mind is "far away" in the sunny South, with her sisters and their children who toil as hard but without any pay! And she fancies the smiles which will gladden their faces, when receiving the things she sent them in a box by the last Georgetown packet. Dunk! dunk!! dunk!!! goes the iron, this time right swift and cheerily, shot away and back, under thy smile, Oh Freedom! No Prie Dieu, in reverential corner, no crucifix and lugubrious beads pendent from the sidewall, no outward and visible sign, but the great impulse of progressive humanity has touched her heart as with flame, and her tried muscles forget all weariness, the iron flies as a weaver's shuttle, shirts appear and disappear with rapidity from the heated blanket and at a quarter to twelve, the groaning table is cleared, and the poor washerwoman sink upon her knees in prayer for them, that they also may soon partake of that freedom which, however toilsome, is yet so sweet.


Once lighted up, the imagination ranges over the possibilities of their enfranchisement. Each one of her three sisters had been brought North with the white family, and went back, for their children's sake, into bondage. She alone had remained North, from her girlhood, as a slave, until one day, when she had reached woman's years, her so-called master, with much bustle, with whip in hand, had called her up stairs for punishment. The scene was short and decisive the tall, stout man had raised his arm to strike—"see here!" fiercely exclaimed the frail being before him, "if you dare touch me with that lash, I will tear you to pieces!" The whipper, whipped, dropt his uplifted arm, and quietly slunk down stairs. There had been unseen by either of them, a silent witness of the scene, who, looking through a glass door, ready to stay the arm of his uncle, had felt a terrible fear, and a terrible triumph. * * *

Yes! well, I had forgotten to say, that, alongside the ironing table, was a good-for-nothing looking quarter grown, bushy-headed boy, a shade or two lighter than his mother, so intent upon "Aladdin; or, the Wonderful Lamp," that he had to be called three or four times before he sprang to put fresh wood on the fire, or light another candle, or bring a pail of water. A boy there, but no evidence around the room, that he called any one father, nor had he, ever, except the unseen, universal "our Father, which art in Heaven." A sort of social Pariah, he had come into the world, after the fashion which so stirs up


Ethiop's pious honor. And yet, genial, forgiving Nature, with a healthy forgetfulness of priests and the rituals, had stamped this boy's face with no lineament particularly hideous, nor yet remarkable, except a 'laughing devil' in his eye that seamed ready to "face the devil" without Burn's prophylactic.

Sunday evening! Can it be the same apartment? No sign of toil is there; everything tidy, neat and clean; all the signs of the hard week's work stowed away in drawers or in the celler. The washerwoman dressed up in neat, even expensive, garments; and her boy with his Sunday go-to-meetin's on, one of the pockets stuffed with sixpence worth of 'pieces,' (candy,) which he had made Stuart the Confectioner (corner of Chamber and Greenwich, father of the present millionaires) rouse up, at day light, and sell him, as he came back from carrying home clothes, that morning. * * *

But I must break off this sketch half way, lest Ethiop should tire wading through it. By the way, how long will it be before we have a titled nobility among our colored American-dom? Our friend, Ethiop, for example, tries to make out that he came into New York a la Benjamin Franklin, with a blue coat on, and a roll of bread under his arm; when everybody knows that he just came from Shrewsbury River, in a Jersey oyster boat, and spent his first half hour in New York dancing for eels at Catharine Market, on Sunday morning at that! As to the cost, why the fellow had only one garment on. We must be down upon this aristocracy, dear Fred; let us mount on our 'scutcheau, a broken chain, and get some one to do up the Latin stating, "if we are slave born, we have ever earned our own living, and do not, and never did, lay off [illegible] or any dead man's earnings North or South." I only wish that I could add to my [illegible] that noblest bar on yours, "Egomet me liberavi!" "I have set myself



The most remarkable thing at the May Anniversary was said by Mr. Latrobe of Baltimore, the main speaker, at the Colonization meeting, "that although he had been very earnestly urged by a leading member of the New York State Colonization Society, to say nothing about the impossibility of the blacks and whites living together in equality and harmony in the same land and under the same political rule," yet he would adver to that subject, &c. &c. This is very remarkable and very cheering, and indicates light breaking where it is much wanted. It was also remarkable, that, when Mr. Latrobe stated the hideous old doctrine of "incompitability, &c." in the loudest, and most cheer-beseeching terms, his New York audience received the outburst in cold silence.

Mrs. Mary Lundie Duncan, in her book on American devotes a chapter to the colored race, in which she paints our condition so abject and non-resisting, that I could only wish her within ear-shot of where I write, that she might learn that colored men and boys too can "strike back" when insulted by whites. But here comes P. Arning Bell, and I must close.




Smith, James McCune (1813–1865)




Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass. PLeSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 17 June 1852. Provides description of washerwoman’s life; dismisses William J. Wilson’s proposal for black autocracy.


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