Frederick Douglass -- The Pendleton Riot
In Pendleton [
], the three men--one black, two white—were
house guests of a local physician.
During the evening of September 14, 1843, they “learned that a mob had
threatened to come down from … a miserable, run-drinking place [ Indiana Andersonville], about six miles distant,” to drive the
race-mixing abolitionists away. Warned
but not deterred, the three went the next morning to the Baptist church. “Frederick spoke,” reported [William] White [a Harvard graduate of about
Douglass’s age] in a letter to the Liberator, “and there was no interruption, though I observed a great number of
men, such as do not usually attend our meetings” The Baptists noticed them too; when the three
speakers returned for the afternoon meeting, they were told they could not use
the building because the church authorities feared it would be pulled down.
When the abolitionists tried to conduct their meeting from the steps outside the church, about thirty of the uninvited guests began to heckle. A local man reasoned with them and achieved sufficient quiet for Bradburn to be heard. His speech went on until a rainstorm abruptly did the hecklers’ job for them. In the evening, the citizens of the town, opposed to slavery or simply embarrassed, met and passed a resolution that the men should be allowed to speak. “The next morning being pleasant,” White continued, “we held our meeting in the woods, where seats and stands had been arranged.” At the start of the meeting, White spotted only seven of their challengers among the hundred men and thirty women who had gathered. The scene was very like that of a camp meeting. The proceedings were opened with a song. Then Bradburn rose to speak, and as he rolled into his attack on slavery, White and Douglass noticed that “the mob continued to collect, but were quiet.” The men were menacing, their faces fixed in sneers. White fixed his eyes on one man about his age who stood barefoot, a pair of homespun pants slung from his hips and a shirt slouched across his body so loosely that it bared his shoulders. The nakedness of this insolence fascinated and terrified the well-bred eastern gentleman. After several minutes, at a signal, the men got up and walked out.
“In a few moments we heard a shout, and saw the mob coming through the woods, thirty or more in number, two by two, armed with stones and eggs,” and led by a man in a coonskin cap. The audience rose for a hasty exit, but White pleaded with them to sit down again. A few of the men and all of the women did. The cry from under the coonskin cap was “Surround them,” and the thirty circled the audience, some stationing themselves at the foot of the speakers’ stand. Stones were thrown at the speakers, but did no real damage. Old eggs were hurled and splattered on the speakers’ faces; the three endured the drip and stink in stoical silence. The audience too was quiet, and the stymied hecklers were at a loss as to what to do next. The peacemaker of the day before tried again, but as he spoke, one man called out to the speakers, asking why they didn’t go down south with their message. Bradburn replied: his challenger, James Jackson, offered a rebuttal; and White invited him up onto the platform to continue the debate. Jackson rose to the bait and made, said the Harvard man, “a most ridiculous spectacle, interlarding his speech with copious oaths, and ending off by saying he could not talk, but he could fight—that he had too much good blood in his veins to let us go on.” On this point, another man jumped up onto the platform, saying that he saw that nothing would be done unless he did it, and seized hold of the table, overturned it, and began to pull the stand to pieces. His buddies now all joined in the wrenching of timbers, pushing protesting members of the audience out of the way.
Douglass was sandwiched between two antislavery people concerned for his safety, but thinking White was in danger, he ran into the midst of the pulling and prying and grabbed a piece of lumber to use as a club. In doing so, he violated not only the Garrisonian insistence on nonviolence, but also white America’s stern law that black men were not to raise weapons except against other black men. There were screams: “kill the nigger, kill the damn nigger.” Furious men pursued Douglass, who ran for his life. White, not injured (and with his hat still on his head), followed in pursuit. The swing of one club broke Douglass’s right hand. Running up, White was able to grab and slow another piece of lumber as it was swung with lethal force; it could have killed the downed black man. A stone hit White on the head; deflected by his hat, it nevertheless opened a gash that bled profusely.
Douglass never forgot those moments with William White. In what may be the most affectionate latter he ever wrote, he recalled it all (three years later) for his friend: “I shall never forget how like two very brothers we were ready to dare, do, and even die for each other. Tragic, awfully so, yet I laugh when I think how comic I must have looked when running before the mob, darkening the air with mud from my feet. How I looked running you can best describe but how you looked bleeding I shall always remember. … Dear William, from that hour … have you been loved by Frederic Douglass.”
With White on the ground, his head gashed and his mouth bleeding from a blow that knocked out teeth, and Douglass lying nearby cradling his painful hand, the attackers got on their horses and rode off. Members of the antislavery audience helped Neal Hardy, “a kind-hearted member of the Society of Friends,” ease the men into his wagon. Hardy took them home and with his wife got their wounds bandaged. (The fracture was not properly set; his right hand bothered Douglass for the rest of his life.) Two days later, they were on the platform in
(McFeely 108-112). Noblesville, Indiana
Meanwhile the ringleader of the riot at Pendleton was arrested. He pleaded guilty and was jailed in
. His cronies from Indianapolis Andersonville
did not abandon him there, however.
Three hundred of them, mounted and armed with rifles, galloped into the
city and demanded his release. Governor
Whitcomb promptly pardoned the man.
From that point onward the series of conventions seemed to run together in Douglass’s consciousness. He spoke many more times in Indiana before leaving, and it is possible to follow the general direction of the return sweep through Ohio and western Pennsylvania in the antislavery press, but to Douglass the audiences began to look much alike. Tumult and threats began to form a kind of pattern. At the same time experience was adding to his own devices for dealing with hecklers and quieting bullies. When tension became great, he introduced humor and convulsed the crowd with laughter. When he had angered them with old testament denunciation till the lid seemed ready to blow, he cunningly struck a note of soft pathos.
… He did retain however some of the questions that were thrown at him most frequently. Always someone wanted to know, often in a whining voice, if it was not true that slaves were better off in slavery. Were they not content and happy? An equal number of people in these western towns wondered if Negroes could take care of themselves, if given their freedom. Others asked if the masters were not generally kind. Wouldn’t most slaves choose to remain in slavery if given the choice? Were not Negroes too lazy to work except in bondage? On the other hand, wasn’t there danger that slaves, if emancipated, would all rush North and take work away from white men? Shouldn’t they be returned to
… The voice droned on, a muttering debate between the slavery advocate and his conscience. “They can’t be improved, the Negroes, they need masters to care for them. They made no progress in
Africa. They are not like white people. They are an inferior race. And you—you are meddling with what does not
concern you. Mind your own
business. You abolitionists are only
making the condition of the Negro worse by your infernal agitation. You have pushed the relations between the
races back fifty years. You will never
in God’s world put an end to slavery.
And there’s another thing—if God wanted slavery abolished, he would have
done it long ago. The Bible sanctions
slavery. The Savior said nothing against
it” (Bontemps 87-88).
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971. Print.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New