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This week in history: Frederick Douglass drops truth bombs at the Palmer House

On a visit to Chicago in 1892, abolitionist Frederick Douglass — who died Feb. 20 — sat for an interview at the Palmer House.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass Edits Newspaper
American orator, editor, author, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) edits a journal at his desk, late 1870s.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Few Americans accomplished as much in their lifetimes as Frederick Douglass. In his 77 years on earth, Douglass — who died Feb. 20, 1895 — escaped slavery, won his freedom, published several newspapers, advised presidents and became one of the most well-known speakers of his time.

In 1892, Douglass arrived in Chicago to serve as the World’s Fair commissioner for Haiti’s exhibition, having previously served as a diplomat there. While he was in town to tour the fairgrounds on May 7, the abolitionist stopped by the Palmer House for an interview on a subject that had made the front page of the Chicago Daily News that day.

The headline of the story, “Negroes may use bombs,” almost certainly raised eyebrows, but Douglass was responding to the rash of lynchings in the South, the same atrocities that Chicago reporter Ida B. Wells covered in “Southern Horrors,” published the same year.

“It is very strange,” Douglass mused, “that the south has to resort to lynch law in this day and age. There is but one excuse for it, and that is they are too weak to enforce laws and this condemns them.”

He wondered why “southern gentlemen” left their wives, daughters and mothers “in charge of colored men with perfect confidence” to fight the Civil War, and now those same gentlemen viewed Black men as “mean, vile and not fit to live.”

“It appears very much as if the colored man were a scapegoat for all of the evil done in the south,” he concluded.

To protect themselves from lynchings, Black southerners “will become chemists and learn how to manufacturer bombs and dynamite,” Douglass predicted. He believed there was little President Benjamin Harrison could do to help, acknowledging limitations in federal laws, though he called Harrison “a friend of the colored man.”

“I think Mr. Harrison has recognized the colored people,” he said. “He possibly has not given them to many small offices, but he has recognized the colored man as no other president has — that is, he has made him the head of departments — departments in which he has had white clerks under him.”

Harrison appointed Douglass ambassador to Haiti in 1889, which he held until 1891. As a World’s Fair Commissioner, Douglass worked with the Haitian government on the country’s fair exhibit.

“That little island, which contains only about eight hundred thousand people, is very enthusiastic over the Fair,” Douglass said. “The people have appropriated $23,000 toward an exhibit, and if peace continues, they will do more. Their exhibit will represent the business and agricultural interests of the county. Haiti is now very prosperous.”