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Communipaw [James McCune Smith] to Frederick Douglass, September 23, 1853


Heads of the Colored People.--


Why is it that black men excel as white-
washers? Perhaps our friend the jeweller
at 833 Canal Street may tell, as he boasts of
spiritual communications; or mayhap Elder
Kennaday knows, for he claimed to have
prophecied about your paper becoming Liberty
Party some fifteen years ago; but however
it may be accounted for, it is notorious
that all the whitewashing is done by black
men; and birds of passage do not visit the
thawing North more certainly the over-
[?], long poles, and lime pails of the
throng our cities, villages and hamlets
from early March till brown October.

What becomes of the whitewashers in the
intervening months 'tis hard to say, they
certainly disappear, and like other
animals are no where to be seen while the
snow lasts. In pursuing their "mission,"
they are a noiseless race; softly as much of
the servants of the Inquisition, you see
pass along the streets, with long, steady
strides, not a smile, scarce a nod from
pepper and salt visages. Whatever house
they enter, is, for the time, theirs.
Resistance is in vain; they represent an
but irresistible power, before which,
doors, chamber doors, and all other
fastenings and hindrances at once give
way; but
unlike the cruel Inquisitors, they are met
with smiles by the mistress of the
mansion, (in dishabille,) who
conducts them through the various
apartments which require the exercise
of their cleansing Art.

The whitewasher is a man of few words,
but he can open his mouth wide enough
(which few of our people can do) when the
price is asked: I know one who charged a
fashionable physician fifty dollars for
whitewashing an ordinary basement; he
has since
retired. And I heard another, one day as
we looked at St. Paul's in London, exclaim,
"what an improvement a few coats of lime
would be to that dark building!" Some
years since, a tall "son of the brush" was
hired and paid by a wag to whitewash the
brown stone basement front of our City
to work he went, and had covered many
yards with his brush before the
succeeded in stopping him—but we left
friend with the lady in her parlor; here he
reigns supreme; Anax audron agamemnon,with his golden "skeptson", never lorded it
more thoroughly over the "well-greaved

The accomplished whitewasher is a most
skilful mechanic; your painter, with a
a foot long, "lays himself out" on a
smooth continuity of parallel lines upon a
door or desk immediately under his grasp,
and strikes if wages go below two dollars a
day; but our whitewasher, with brush
at the end of a ten feet pole, strikes the
lofty ceiling with swift, sure and even
and draws parallels as perfect some 60 or
feet long, without break, or wave or
of any kind; then your painter daubs and
spatters and greases everything around—is a
perfect abomination to all tidy housekeepers;
but the whitewasher, with keen eye and
steady hand drops not a speck of lime on
superb Wilton carpet, or delicate mantel
and he soberly steers around gilded
cornices and diamond be-dropped candelabra.
How he manages to avoid drops and
spattering, I cannot tell; I "cave in" on
that; for even I, Communipaw, with my
short brush and dry paint, cannot do
these clumsy
portraits without spattering some
people, as
I learn by their squealing. In another
direction, I mean in the erection of
scaffolding for very high-roofed churches,
the whitewasher exhibits much
mechanical skill. You hear
of painters and masons tumbling from
scaffolds, but of whitewashers never.—And one ex-whitewasher, Stephen
holds a patent (done at Washington) for an
improvement in affixing a ball and
to the whitewash brush; it is applicable
to all brushes, and especially useful in
When I saw the splended parchment,
with the superb engraving of the Capital,
rightly frowned over by a deep dark
cloud, and the twenty odd stars beaming
through; and when I saw the name of my black brother engrossed on the parchment, I
felt that he had now a place among that
line of flame-colored heroes who have,
terrible difficulties carved their names
among the WORKERS.

Our whitewasher is a chemist, too in his
way: a mediocral chemist working out
results without knowing deeply the
elements he
combines; he knows secrets about lime,
lamp black, and sizing, and mixing colors,
any of which are worth a patent; and
painters and chemists assay to discover
their art as vainly as they do the lost art of
glass-staining. In not a few old houses,
there are
room walls standing, with blue, or green,
yellow coloring, which ancient
keep untouched for years, well knowing
no living whitewasher can match the nice
colors which Uncle Johnny—now dead and
gone—had left behind on the walls
for these old whitewashers held on to
their color secrets until, and after, and in
like fashion, that a certain lad personage
is said to hold on to them.

I know painters who would pay well for
a knowledge of this white and color
but money cannot buy it. And I know that
the whitewashing of such vast buildings
the Merchants Exchange, Astor House,
&c., is retained by the superior skill of
my friend Surrah Carrtarr, ex-sexton of
St. Philips.

Surrah Carrtar, in the region about
is prince of whitewashers. African born,
and of the citizen, not the slave class, in
Africa (of the Soo-soo tribe) he can write
Arabic and repeat portions of the
Koran.—Stolen from home at an early age, he was
carried to Demara and became under
overseer on the estate of old Mr.
who brought him to New York many years
ago as his slave. Carrtarr soon heard of
the old Manumission Society and of his
right to freedom; one day in the summer
time, and at the country seat near Harlaem river, he demanded wages of his soi disant master, and was rebuffed. A day or two after, when the old gentleman walked into the orchard, Carrtarr talked Arabic and threw apples at him: he was thought to be crazed, and was seized and secured in an upper room until officers could be sent for. The door was of oak and heavily panelled; Carrtarr made for it head foremost, and burst an opening large enough to get through, master and servants stood aghast, as this crazy man ran past them down to the city where he has lived ever since.

Twenty-five years have made no difference in his personal appearance. Short, wiry, with a well developed head and keen black eye, his conversation, although in broken English, is full of apt proverbs and of comparisons, ottra ladicrons, always hot and pithy. And as to his sayings, is not Wall Street full of them.

One day he called on a Pine Street merchant for some money due; a young wag in the set asked "where did you come from, whitewasher?" A. From "Africa." Q -- "Africa! What brought you here?" A. "Your broder." Q (The questioner reddening) "My brother, he was never in Africa!" A. "Well, he had straight hair, blue eyes, small mout', and white skin, must be your broder!" As they say in Congress, the
"conversation dropped."







The whitewashers are a cleanly people
men of families, and regular church-goers.—There are in the city, some fifty bosses, and
two hundred journeymen. I learn that many
of the latter devote themselves to "waiting
and tending" in the winter. Except that a
large number will deal in the fatal policy
gambling, there is no better class, nor more
thrifty in our city. Their wives take in
washing, and their children attending school.
The boss whitewashers number about fifty;
their Sunday "habitat" is old. Their church;
almost every trustee of that venerable insti-
tution, "handles the brush;" and they all
hold "a piece or parcel of land" in a snug
spot, growing in value, or else hold an ac-
count in the Savings' Bank, in which the CR.
side is heaviest by an integer, and, too, often
three ciphers on the right side of it. Envi-
ous people do say that there is a mysterious
connexion between financeing for old Tim
and growing rich; but I spurn the idea, for
my friend Carrtarr, ex-sexton of St. Philips,
and John Johnson, one of the pillars there-
of, and ex-organ blower of Trinity—both boss


whitewashers—have their piles in Bank; it
is whitewashing that enriches them, as any
man may affirm who contracts a bill with
them. Journeymen whitewashers earn from
one to two dollars a day, according to their
ability as workmen.

Now, a word of gossip. The A. M. C. of
the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows,
met at Newark last week; twenty-two lodges
were represented, and they had fine times;
G. M. James Gordon, re-elected. The Rev.
Samuel V. Barry, has recently returned from
England, and is "fitting out for Liberia and
a resting place." He delivered two very su-
perior discourses in St. Paul's to-day; the
white minister of which did not honor him,
nor the congregation by the usual courtesy
of being present, and reading prayers for
him. Mr. Lyman Eppes, from North Elba,
Essex county, a successful colored farmer on
the Gerrit Smith lands, passed through New
York on Friday, (17th inst;) he has cleared
some sixteen acres, has a cow, and span of
horses, house, barn, &c., and looks and feels
as independent as the next farmer; they
have recently established a Congregational
church in North Elba, in which "no commu-
nion with slaveholders" is a standing resolu-


tion. Mr. Eppes informs me that there are
five colored settlers in Township Twelve, or
North Elba, all doing well. They all went
thither with little or no means, and are prov-
ing how well the masses might have done
had they made proper use of this noble do-
nation. The Rev. Mr. Inskip will preach in
Zion church, corner Leonard Street, on Sun-
day evening, October 2d, for the benefit of
the Rush Academy, which is to be located in
North Elba, Essex county, N. Y. Mr. E. V.
Clark, delegate to the Rochester Convention,
from Zion church, held a meeting therein
on the 16th inst., gave an account of his
stewardship, and resolutions approving of
the "doings" that were passed. A commit-
tee was appointed to get up a series of lec-
tures during the winter.


NEW YORK, Sept. 23d, 1853.


Communipaw [James McCune Smith]


September 23, 1853


Communipaw [James McCune Smith] to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick DouglassP, 30 September 1853. Tells the story of an immigrant whitewasher from Africa.


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


Frederick Douglass' Paper (Rochester, N.Y.) 1851-18??



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