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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 little 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 practicability—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 ingenuity in handicraft, has undoubtedly found its maximum, among our white American brethren, not only in consequence of the sharpened instinct growing out of the physical 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 hereditary 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 compete 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 villages, 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 accepted 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 determined 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 Legislature 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 effect—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 one.

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 saying 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 vividness 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 remained 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 inventor? 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 scooped up and threw into his basket! I believe there was a crab in the net also, which reminds 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 tangible 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 foremost, then, the church being closed for cleaning, 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 omnibus 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 Wellington he looked! For Wellington had two eyes—so had the senior Warden: Wellington 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 colored Horace Greeley resembles the white Horace.

There now! I didn't intend to say one word about Ethiop. I respect his grief for the loss of his literary bantling at Rochester, 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 mother of SAMUEL RINGGOLD WARD, which took place in this city yesterday: this will probably 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



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