The Graduate Center - City University of New York

Frederick Douglass, "Letter to W. J. Wison," Anglo-African (1865)

While the St. Louis Western Sanitary Commission was fundraising among freedmen for their Freedman's Memorial, another group, the Colored People’s Educational Monument Association, led by the black political activist Henry Highland Garnet, proposed an alternative monument in the form of a national freedom school in the name of Lincoln to serve as a utilitarian memorial. This project planned to solicit money from both blacks and whites, which drew criticism from some African-American leaders, including Frederick Douglass. After an exchange of letters debating the proposed school were published in the Anglo-African in 1865, the freedom school project disappeared.

Creator: Frederick Douglass

Date: September 3, 1865

Publisher: Anglo-African

Source: American Social History Project

My Dear Sir:
In answer to your note requesting me to allow my name to stand as one of the officers of the “Educational Monument Association,” I beg to state that I cannot allow my name as you request, nor can I, with my present views, favor the adopted by the Association. On many accounts I wish I could unite with you in this enterprise, and not the least among them is the pleasure I experience in finding myself cooperating with yourself, and other gentlemen connected with the Educational Monument Association, for the common elevation and improvement of our condition as a people. But I must be true to my conviction of fitness.

When I go for anything I like to go strong, and when I cannot go thus I had better not go at all. You cannot want a man among you who cannot bring his whole heart to the work. I can’t do this, and hence will not fill the place, which, if filled at all, should be filled more worthily.

You will, my old friend, naturally inquire why I cannot do this? Here there is no difficulty but the time required to answer. There is much I could say, but I must be brief. First of all, then, I must say, this whole monument business, in its present shape, strike me as an offence against good taste, and as calculated to place colored people in an undesirable and discreditable position before he country. Such, I say, is my present conviction. Do not consider me hostile to monuments nor to colleges; I am not to either. Things good in standing alone are not always good when mixed.

Now, a monument by the colored people, erected at the expense of the colored people, in honor of the memory of Abraham Lincoln, expressive of their gratitude and affection for their friend and great benefactor, however humble and inexpensive the marble, I could understand and appreciate, and the world would understand and appreciate the effort. A monument like this would express one the holiest sentiments of the human heart. It would be, as all such offerings should be, free from all taint of self-love or self-interest on our part, as a class. It would be our own act and deed and would show to after-coming generations, in some degree, the sentiments awakened among the oppressed by the death of Mr. Lincoln. A monument of this kind, erected by the colored people—that is by the voluntary offerings of the colored people—is a very different thing from a monument built by money contributed by white men to enable colored people to build a monument. We should bury our own dead and build our own monuments, and all monuments which we would build to the memory of our friends, if we would not invite continued contempt of the white race upon our heads. Now, whenever a movement shall be made for such a monument, I am with it, heart and soul, and will do my best to make it a success.