Thursday, February 9, 2012

Black History Month ~ Frederick Douglass in New Hampshire, 1842


The historic Old Meeting House in Pittsfield,
now the town Senior Center

In the 1840s not all of New England espoused Abolitionist beliefs, or embraced the idea that the African slaves were their brothers.  Most of New Hampshire did not follow the liberal beliefs found in Salem or Boston.  It was rural.  Most residents had never seen a black person. Remember, at this time the only president from New Hampshire was in office, and Franklin Pierce was infamous for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, and for being a copperhead.

In 1842 Frederick Douglass was sent by the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society to speak at the church in tiny Pittsfield, New Hampshire. He was only 25 years old, recently freed from slavery.  He had to ride on the roof of the stage coach because “no colored person could be allowed inside” as he stated in his autobiography.  He was not met with open arms.  The Hilles family, who was asked to board him, subscribed to the Liberator.  They felt obliged to put him up but not to treat him well.  Douglass wrote that Mr. Hilles suffered from “colorphobia”.

One year earlier in Northfield, New Hampshire a pastor named George Storrs prayed at his pulpit for abolition.  He was arrested on a complaint of disturbing the peace!  This made national headlines.  He was arrested a second time in Pittsfield by the authority of a writ signed by the Democratic US Representative who lived in town.  The Reverend Storrs was sentenced to three months hard labor. Frederick Douglass knew he was facing a tough audience.

During Frederick Douglass’s lecture, the audience was polite, but did not applaud. During the lunch break no one invited him home, and the only tavern in town asked him to leave.  Douglass sat on a stone wall by the church in the rain to wait until the evening session of his lecture.  Finally, a gentleman passing by took pity and invited him to his home.  This was the US Representative Moses Norris, well known pro-slavery advocate who had signed the writ for Reverend George Storrs arrest!
Frederick Douglas sat on the wall or on one
of the tombstones here at the Meeting House cemetery
At the Norris home, the children ran screaming from the house when they saw a black man enter the door.  Mrs. Norris first acted cold, but then opened her heart when she saw Douglass was shivering and hungry.  By the end of the meal, Douglass quoted “from that moment I could see that her prejudices were more than half gone, and that I more than half welcome at the fireside of this Democratic Senator.  I spoke again in the evening and at the close of the meeting there was quite a contest between Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Hilles, as to which I should go home with.”

Hearts were turned in little Pittsfield, New Hampshire.  His evening lecture was a huge success and Douglass went on to become a famous speaker all over the north.  Moses Norris went on to become a US senator, succeeding Franklin Pierce. In this part of New England there are still few black residents, and few black tourists.  But Pittsfield has honored the stone wall, where a discouraged Frederick Douglas sat shivering, as part of their heritage trail with this a marker:

Transcription of the historical marker at Pittsfield, New Hampshire

1842 - Frederick Douglass' Visit
On one of these gravestones sat the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a cold, drizzling rain after giving an anti-slavery speech in the Old Meeting House. Having been refused service at a nearby hotel, he was hungry and without shelter. Pro-slavery Senator Moses Norris, Jr., in an act of humanitarian kindness, invited the disconsolate stranger into his house for the evening. Thereafter, Mr. Douglass was treated with great respect.

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From The Nation’s Problem by Frederick Douglass, 1889
“There is still a great deal of prejudice, even in the North, against colored people; but he has found out that the only way to cure it, is to treat them kindly. This he proved by the fact that at Pittsfield, New Hampshire, forty-eight years before, Mrs. Norris had been helped, by doing him a kindness, to shake off her prejudice against his color and his views so thoroughly as to be the first to shake hands with him after his lecture.”

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At Hampton, New Hampshire John Greenleaf Whittier wrote this tongue-in-cheek poem in honor of the election of 1846, as a coded letter from Franklin Pierce to Moses Norris.  It mentions the anti-slavery Free Will Baptists of New Hampshire, and abolitionist John P. Hale, who was elected senator as a dissident Democrat.

“ ‘Tis over, Moses!  All is lost!
I hear the bells-a-ringing;
Of Pharoah and his Red Sea host
I hear the Free Wills singing.
We’re routed, Moses, horse and foot,
If there be truth in figures,
With Federal Whigs in hot pursuit,
And Hale and all the ‘niggers’…

The ides of June! Woe the day
When, turning all things over,
The traitor Hale shall make his hay
From Democratic clover!
Let Hale exult and Wilson scoff,
To see us southward scamper;
The slave, we know, are “better off
Than laborers in New Hampshire!”

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For more information:

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, Kessinger Publishing, 2004,  see pages 530 – 534 for the description of his days in Pittsfield, New Hampshire.

A post at SeacoastNH.com by historian J. Dennis Robinson, his primary source was the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Resource Book by Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons, http://seacoastnh.com/arts/please021001.html

The Pittsfield, New Hampshire Heritage Trail website, and this link takes you to the page describing Douglass’s lecture at the Old Meeting House
The map and trail brochure can be printed out for visitors.

Jacksonian Antislavery and the Politics of Freedom, by Jonathan H. Earle,  University of North Carolina Press, 2003, pages 98 -99 for Whittier’s poem about Norris and Storrs.

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Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo 

7 comments:

  1. Absolutely wonderful posts filled with historical significance. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Heather, thank you for this fascinating post! The many indignities suffered by people say so much. And at the same time, the kindnesses, should one choose to let them come forth, have far greater impact. Great post!!

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  3. Super-Duper website! I am loving it!! Will come back again. I am bookmarking your feeds also
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  4. This is a wonderful story, Heather. When I look at the makeup of towns in the country, I can see at a glance how challenging it might be for a non-white person to be seen as equal - visibly sticking out is not a good thing in our societies over time. Still a problem. An excellent and well-researched post - I enjoyed it very much.

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  5. i visited this church yesterday thanks for sharing this story in details

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