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Frederick Douglass was traveling
with a friend of another color in a part of
the country where public sentiment was bitterly
hostile to the association of colors. They stopped
at a tavern and dined together, at which spectacle
the village, growling and grumbling about the
stove in the bar-room, was immediately disposed to
mischief. The bar-room philosophers were sadly
troubled for the honor of their color.
business has a white man to be traveling and eating
with a — nigger, anyhow? If he doesn’t
know what’s decent, we’ll teach him.” The crowd
was, indeed, very anxious to give the offender a
few summary lessons in decency. They were like
duelists, who have a ludicrous conceit that they
know what honor is. Douglass slipped out quiet-
ly, and returning after a little while, he remarked
to his companion, in a good-humored way, that he
had just seen a very singular sight in the stable;
and the crowd turned to hear what it was. “You’ll
hardly believe it,” said Douglass, addressing his
companion as if there were no one else in the
room, “but I gave my white mare and your bay
horse four quarts of oats each, and there they
are, eating side by side as quietly and contentedly
as if they were of the same color! ‘Tis most
extraordinary!” He did not laugh nor wink, but
made his remark with a simple sincerity that was
There was a moment of silence.
Then came the echo. Human wit had spoken,
and a human heart answered. “What cussed
fools we are!” said one of the crowd, sententiously;
and a loud laugh followed, which scattered
like a burst of sunlight the gathering cloud of
mischievous intention. A little tact had been a
hundredfold more effectual in melting a prejudice
than a series of solemn lectures.
–George William Curtis, A Recollection of Frederick Douglass, Harper’s Magazine, April 1876.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”