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Communipaw [James McCune Smith] to Frederick Douglass, September 9, 1853


For Frederick Douglass' Paper

Heads of the Colored People.—No. VII.


These sketches were sadly interrupted by
the long and painful illness of one whose little
chair is vacant by my hearthstone, whose lit-
tle grave is filled on the hill-side: and, again
and again, as I sit by my easel, brush in
hand, spirit fingers weave his golden hair
upon the canvass, and those sad eyes light
upon me, and spirit voices break the stillness
of the night, in cadences now light and
[fi]ery, now sobbing in keen agony. * *

When you announced your "workshop"
[plan], Mr. Editor, I had doubts as to its prac-
ticability—doubts arising from the belief
[that] among this race of contriving Yankees
who surround us, it would be a vain effort to
enter the lists as contrivers: human ingenu-
ity in handicraft, has undoubtedly found
its maximum, among our white American
brethren, not only in consequence of the
sharpened instinct growing out of the physi-
cal circumstances, but also by reason of the
vast influx of experienced handicraftsmen,
whom the restlessness of conscious energies,
or political necessity, or inducements of large
pecuniary reward, have driven to our shores.

The attempt, therefore, to bring up a class
of black handicraftsmen, "hand workers,"


as the Greeks have it, who, in order to live,
must not only equal but excel their white
competitors, is an attempt to oppose the
fresh, untutored intellect of the negro,
against the accumulated experience and he-
reditary skill of the whites, in the very
matter—contrivance—in which, next to
blood shedding, the whites are born to excel.

However bold the challenge or the attempt,
it is not without some hope of success. The
very desperateness with which the whites
close their workshops against us, partakes of
the energy with which men defend a citadel
which contains their all, and which they feel
may be taken. Their opposition therefore
betrays their consciousness that we may com-
pete and win. It is our business to confirm
their fears.

Another source of doubt, in your plan,
was the fact, that so far as I could see or
learn, very few colored men have directed
their attention to mechanics practical or
theoratical. But my friend, Wm. Whipper,
assures me that in the inland towns and vil-
lages, quite a number of our brethren devote
their long winter evenings to mechanical
contrivances. And a friend from Alabama
gives me this cheering fact: A few years
ago, a white mechanic contracted to build a
new State House, in accordance with an ac-
cepted plan. He went on famously until it
came to the roofing and cupola; there, he
stuck: nor could he find in the State, any
white man competent to complete these
parts of the edifice. Another carpenter,
however, whom we shall call Mr. B—, had
a slave, also a carpenter, who undertook
and completed the roof and cupola aforesaid.
Shortly after, his master, who had determin-
ed to set him free, petitioned the Legislature,


sitting under the roof and cupola aforesaid,
for permission to emancipate this masterly
mechanic, so that he might remain in the
State a free man: the enlightened laws of
Alabama, as you know, making expatriation
the cause of emancipation. Well, the Leg-
islature refused the prayer to the petition.—The master then declared openly, that if they
did not grant his petition, he would set his
bond-mechanic free, and send him away from
the State. This threat had the desired ef-
fect—the Legislature reconsidering their
vote, and gave permission, and saved to the
State its ablest mechanic. If so much can
be done by mechanical genius in a slave
state, how much more may be done in a free

At our neighboring village of Brooklyn
also, the finest carpenter work in the town
hall was done by a black carpenter educated,
I believe, way down South. And in this
connexion, I cannot help remarking that I
argue with our friend Uriah Boston in say-
ing that you were "down on the barbers" a
little too severely. I know a cozy little black
room, off a barber's shop in the Swamp in
our city, where the delicate touch cultivated
by handling the razor, was successfully
transferred to the canvass and pictures, at
first stiff and formal, gradually assumed an
ease and gracefulness in outline, and a vivid-
ness in tone and coloring, that promised a
not remote maturity, when the easel was
forsaken for the lumber-yard of our friend
Stephen Smith. The case tells strongly
against you, Mr. Briareus Editor, so down
upon the barber; had the swamp barber re-
mained in the swamp, he would have become


a painter of note: now he may become a
man of wealth, but his artist dream is o'er.
And this same friend of mine exercised not
a little mechanical ingenuity in constructing
steamboat paddles, loco-motion breaks, and
an apparatus for ventilating an apartment
with fans moved by machinery.

But what has all this to do with one inven-
tor? Excuse me, but standing in our "lane"
near the edge of the canal, (the Morris canal,)
my ideas floated along on each dimpling
wave, until one of them struck smack
against a crab net, which a boy coolly scoop-
ed up and threw into his basket! I believe
there was a crab in the net also, which re-
minds me of the fact that the Napoleon of
soft shell crabs led to the hymerical alter, last
night, one of the loveliest of New York's
lovely widows: and it is whispered that a
distinguished apothecary has taken to squab
pigeons, which a French marquis asserts, is
the surests way to assuage grief.

And this reminds me of the fact that there
is more widow and widower weddings on the
carpet here in Gotham, than weddings of the
other sort. This is a curious state of things,
and as I am fond of facts placed in a tangi-
ble shape, I would feel obliged to Professor
Reason for a formula to show that the old
theorem of the time of Eucled, to wit: that
love is represented by a circle with one
centre, equal radii—is a mistake: the truth
being, that love is an elipse, with two or
more foci, that is fire places, which makes
it handy. The Professor, while his hand
is in, would further oblige me with a
formula for counting minute hexagons in a
given space, showing also the shape of the
figure in which hexagons may most conveni-


ently be counted. I may as well add, that
this last request is in earnest, as the formula
will greatly aid in counting insect eyes under
the microscope.

But then, one Inventor. First and fore-
most, then, the church being closed for clean-
ing, and to allow the pastor a short respite
at Lake Mahopac, the good people of St.
Phillips, went the other day, just as engine
boys, insurance watchmen, &c., &c., do, on
a fishing excursion to Sheep's Head bay.—You should have seen them start, the omni-
bus drivers gaily dressed, their six horse
teams, with an American flag fastened to each
horse's head, &c., &c. They were under the
control of the senior Warden: how like Well-
ington he looked! For Wellington had two
eyes—so had the senior Warden: Welling-
ton had a mouth—so had the senior Warden:
Wellington wore an old blue coat—the senior
Warden wore an ancient snuff colored body
coat—Wellington—in short he resembled
Wellington quite as much as Ethiop's color-
ed Horace Greeley resembles the white Hor-

There now! I didn't intend to say one
word about Ethiop. I respect his grief for
the loss of his literary bantling at Roches-
ter, and if it be not an untimely trespass to
hint such a thing, I would barely mention,
that it was a "knowin' baby," "too sensible
to live."

It is astonishing how much travel colored
American-dom has performed this season.—At Newport, Cape May and Shrewsbury,
there are very comfortable and reasonable
boarding houses especially designed for our
aristocracy; and all these houses have been
crowded during the season by intelligent
and fashionable boarders.


I regret to annouce the death of the moth-
er of SAMUEL RINGGOLD WARD, which took
place in this city yesterday: this will prob-
ably be the first notice he will receive of the
sad event, and I deeply sympathize with him
in his bereavement.



Communipaw [James McCune Smith]


September 9, 1853


Communipaw [James McCune Smith] to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick DouglassP, 9 September 1853. Comments on the difficulty of raising skilled handymen, engineers, and inventors as long as slavery remains.


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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