Inaugural Flashback

The Time That Abraham Lincoln’s White House Tried To Throw Out Frederick Douglass

“No man of my race, color or previous condition, had ever attended such a reception, except as a servant or waiter… we found ourselves being conducted through an outside window on a plank for the exit of the visitors.”

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In his memorable post-election monologue on SNL, Dave Chappelle spotlighted black access to the White House. He recalled attending the BET party there a few weeks prior to the election, “where everybody was black, except Bradley Cooper, for some reason.”

Chappelle contrasted that moment of pride with the far more restricted experience blacks had known in the past. “I’m not sure if this is true,” he said, “but to my knowledge the first black person that was officially invited to the White House was Frederick Douglass.” Switch out “person” for “leader” and that’s accurate.

With a note of sorrow, Chappelle then stated that when the former slave came to meet the president, “They stopped him at the gates. Abraham Lincoln had to walk out himself and escort Frederick Douglass into the White House.” Here Chappelle mixed up two different events—although he did capture the essence of what happened at one of them.

The nation’s leading black abolitionist visited Lincoln twice during the Civil War, first in August 1863 and again in August 1864. Douglass recalled no such hostility at either meeting. The anecdote Chappelle brought up is actually from the third time he came to the White House, on inauguration night in early March 1865.

Douglass provided the basic outline of what happened in his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, first published in 1881. And he vividly expanded his reflections in a Lincoln Day speech he delivered in Brooklyn in 1893, two years before his death.

The great orator had previously regaled Brooklyn audiences with his accounts of his first meeting Lincoln, whom he praised for his ability to “entertain and converse with a black man without once reminding him of the color of his complexion.” In February 1893, Douglass spoke at the Union League Club (on Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights), a gathering of Brooklyn’s leading Republican Party figures. His talk was preceded by a ten-course meal that commenced with Blue Point oysters.

As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it, when the “colored orator” stood up to address the banquet room, the stuffed company “rose with him, cheering, waving handkerchiefs and striking into a chorus of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ with a vim that made the candle-shades shake.”

Douglass then delivered what amounted to his own farewell address, during which he described the inauguration night events with his signature mix of insight, wit, and pride. Here’s what he said, with audience reactions recorded by Brooklyn newspapers in brackets.

In the evening I attended Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural reception. It was a new experience for Washington, a new experience for me, and a new experience for the country, to see a person like myself present on such an occasion. [Applause.]

Having witnessed the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln in the morning, my colored friends urged me to attend the inauguration reception at the executive mansion in the evening. Here, indeed, I found solid ice to break, for no man of my race, color or previous condition, had ever attended such a reception, except as a servant or waiter. I did not look upon the matter lightly, either subjectively or objectively. To me it was a serious thing to break in upon the established usage of the country, and run the risk of being repulsed; but I went to the reception, determined to break the ice, which I [did] in an unexpectedly rough way.

When Mrs. Louise Dorsey [wife of a leading black businessman from Philadelphia] and I presented ourselves at the door of the White House we were met by two sturdy policemen, who promptly informed us that we could not be allowed to enter, and when we attempted to enter without their consent they pushed us back with some violence. I was, however, determined not to be repulsed and forced myself and lady inside the door, despite the guard. But my trouble was not ended by that advantage. A policeman inside met us and with a show of friendliness, said to us: “Oh, yes; come this way! come this way!” Thinking that he was about to conduct us to the famous East Room, where the reception was proceeding, we followed the lead of our new, red-faced, burly, blue-coated friend; but just when we thought that we were entering, we found ourselves being conducted through an outside window on a plank for the exit of the visitors. [Laughter.]

I never knew so exactly what was meant by walking the plank. [Laughter.] I said, “This will not do.” To a gentleman who was passing at the moment I said, “Tell Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is at the door and is refused admission.” I did not walk the plank, and, to the policeman’s astonishment, was especially invited into the spacious East Room, and we found ourselves in a bewildering sea of beauty and elegance [applause], such as my poor eyes had never before seen in any one room at home or abroad. High above every other figure in the room, and overlooking the brilliant scene, stood the towering form of Mr. Lincoln, completely hemmed in by the concourse of visitors passing and taking his hand as they passed. The scene was so splendid, so glorious that I almost repented of my audacity in daring to enter.

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But as soon as President Lincoln saw me I was relieved of all embarrassment. In a loud voice, so that all could hear, and looking toward me, he said, “And here comes my friend, Frederick Douglass!” [Good! Good!] I had some trouble in getting through the crowd of elegantly dressed people to Mr. Lincoln.

When I did succeed, and shook hands with him, he detained me and said, “Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it?” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not stop to talk now. Thousands are here, wishing to shake your hand.” But he said, “You must stop. There is no man in the United States whose opinion I value more than yours. How did you like it?” [Applause.] I said, “Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,” and passed on, amid some smiles, much astonishment and some frowns. And this was the last time that I heard the voice and saw the face and form of honest Abraham Lincoln.

150 years later, the Republicans’ claim to be the “Party of Lincoln” is pure fraud. And the nation’s first black president is now passing the torch to a man whose idea of a civil rights leader is Don King.