On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass died unexpectedly in Washington, D. C. Douglass had been born into enslavement, but obtained his freedom and became an acclaimed orator and abolitionist, and perhaps the most prominent Black man in America.
Frederick Douglass died a few minutes before 7 o'clock last night at his residence in Anacostia, a suburb of Washington, of heart failure. His death was entirely unexpected, as he had been apparently enjoying the best of health recently. During the afternoon he attended the Convention of the Women of the United States now in progress in Washington. When he returned home he said nothing of any feeling of illness, though he appeared to be a little exhausted from the climb up the steep flights of steps leading from the street to the house. He sat down and talked with his wife about the convention, telling of various things that had been said and done. Suddenly he gasped, clapped his hand to his heart and fell back unconscious. A doctor was hastily summoned and arrived in a very few moments, but his efforts to revive the patient were hopeless from the first. Within twenty minutes after the attack the faint motion of the heart ceased entirely and he was dead.
"Death of Frederick Douglass." Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia). February 21, 1895. Page 3.
He had been in the highest spirits and apparently in the best of health when death overtook him. Frederick Douglass, who had been for half a century assuredly in the foremost rank of the orators of his race, had just completed his 78th year, and after his many vicissitudes died seemingly in excellent health not many miles distant from the county on the eastern shore of Maryland where he was born a slave in February, 1817.
"Frederick Douglass Dead." The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania). February 21, 1895. Page 1.
In 1893, Douglass hired Paul Laurence Dunbar to assist him at the Haitian Pavilion during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, giving Paul and his poetry international visibility for the first time. Paul's friend Rebekah Baldwin, a schoolteacher in Washington, obtained tickets to Douglass' funeral and hoped that Paul would travel from Dayton to attend. Paul did not go to the funeral, but Rebekah later wrote to him about the service and enclosed his unused ticket.
Admit to the Obsequies of Frederick Douglass
Metropolitan A. M. E. Church
February 25, 1895
Admission ticket to Frederick Douglass' funeral, February 25, 1895. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 3).
You do not know, my dearest friend, how much I have thought of you since this great grief has come upon us. I expected you to come, for well I know your great love for him whose going has left such a gap in life. I thought you might come even at the last moment so I secured for you a card of admission to the obsequies. I know that you will treasure the last memento of our illustrious friend. I wish, dear Paul, that I could paint for you the sweet majesty of this great man as he lay within his oaken casket calmly sleeping death's still sleep. You and I both loved this great man; it is a mutual sorrow, one that will last us always.
Rebekah Baldwin to Paul Laurence Dunbar, March 3, 1895. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).
The following day, Paul participated in a memorial for Douglass that took place in Richmond, Indiana.
Last night at the African Methodist Episcopal Church a memorial service was held for the late Frederick Douglass, the colored people filling the building, and a number of white citizens also attending. A feature was the original poem on Mr. Douglass, read by Paul Dunbar, who has made quite a name and is now known as "the Whittier of his race."
"In Honor of Douglass." The Indianapolis Sentinel (Indianapolis, Indiana). March 5, 1895.
Paul's poem in honor of Douglass was published the following year in Lyrics of Lowly Life.
A hush is over all the teeming lists,
And there is pause, a breath-space in the strife;
A spirit brave has passed beyond the mists
And vapors that obscure the sun of life.
And Ethiopia, with bosom torn,
Laments the passing of her noblest born.
No miser in the good he held was he,
His kindness followed his horizon's rim.
His heart, his talents, and his hands were free
To all who truly needed aught of him.
Where poverty and ignorance were rife,
He gave his bounty as he gave his life.
We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent throughout the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle-cry.
O'er all that holds us we shall triumph yet,
And place our banner where his hopes were set!
Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o'er the gale!
Thou'st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar,
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And, rising from beneath the chast'ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!
Excerpt from "Frederick Douglass" by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Published in Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896).
The following year, Paul took part in a literary and musical recital in Washington. He did not read his memorial poem about Douglass during the event, and this omission apparently disappointed the widow Helen Douglass. Paul told her it would have been in poor taste to read it at an entertainment for which he was being paid.
Let me say that I did not forget Mr. Douglass, and that my actions will prove that I have not revered his memory less than those who have been more ostentatious in their display of loyalty. There were three considerations that kept me from giving the Douglass poem the other night. First a rather rare trait called good taste which prevents one from giving a memorial for the dead at a public entertainment of such a nature. People of good taste do not wear their hearts upon their sleeves or drag their deepest and most sacred emotions out before the public gaze. The second consideration was my sense of the eternal fulness of things. The third, a reverence for the memory of my dear friend that would not let me drag his name into a merely commercial enterprise. My Douglass poem was a work of love, not an article of traffic. I have no inclination to profit by the death of that great man.
Paul Laurence Dunbar to Helen Douglass, October 22, 1896. Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 1).