The South Carolina State Museum has acquired a walking stick that was presented to Frederick Douglass in 1888. The ebonized wood cane sold at a Cowan’s auction in Cincinnati on February 20th of this year for an impressive $37,500, far exceeding the presale estimate of $3,000-5,000. The museum was able to stay in the exorbitant bidding thanks to its acquisition and collections fund, moneys set aside to secure coveted objects for the museum’s permanent collection.
The cane was a beautifully customized gift given to the Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of South Carolina. Its gold cap features strawberries (in Christian art, the strawberry symbolizes righteousness and nobility of spirit) against a hammered background and is engraved “Hon. F. Douglass / From D.L.I. / Charleston S.C. / Mar. 6th / 1888.” It bears the makers mark of Robert Fitz Simmons of Attleboro, Massachusetts, a chaser and engraver who had a thriving business as a watch chain manufacturer and then expanded into other product lines.
Reconstruction had ended with abrupt finality in 1877 and like the rest of the former Confederate states, South Carolina had resegregated with bloody gusto. Douglass’ speaking tour 11 years later to South Carolina and Georgia was fraught with peril. He was the most famous black man in the country, instantly recognizable (he was the most photographed African American of the 19th century) and just as outspoken a critic of white supremacy after the war as he had been an abolitionist before and during.
On his stop in South Carolina, he delivered two lectures: European Travels and Self-Made Men. The former gave an account of his observations of the difference between racial attitudes in Europe and the United States as he had experienced on his travels, particularly his two-year-long abolitionist lecture tour in the mid-1840s. The latter was a speech about men born into misery who achieve their ambitions without any advantages of birth, connections, wealth, early education or any kind of encouraging environment. First written in 1859, it was a popular lecture that he continued to deliver to rapt crowds night unto his death in 1895.
A review for his delivery of these speeches at Claflin College, a historically black university founded by Methodist missionaries in 1869 for the education of freed slaves and their children, in The Orangeburg Times and Democrat was positive, if tinged with ominousness. The brief blurb described Douglass as “no doubt the most distinguished colored man in the world” but noted that “Upon being questioned by a student on civil rights matters in America, he advised him to “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!'” That didn’t go down so well. “His manner was pleasing and dignified, but his subject for the time was assuredly ill chosen.” I somehow doubt the paper would have approved of the subject matter at any other time either.
In Charleston, he delivered the speeches at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1882 as the daughter church of Mother Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, founded almost 50 years before emancipation in 1817. Charleston’s population was majority black and there were several local African American militia companies named after black and abolitionist heroes Like Crispus Attucks and William Lloyd Garrison. One of them was the Douglass Light Infantry. After Douglass’ speech at Mount Zion AME, the members of the Douglass Light Infantry sang to him at their armory and presented him with the walking stick.
“Walking sticks and canes were often given as presentation gifts during the 19th century, and it is almost certain that Douglass received more than one in his lifetime,” noted Danielle Linn, senior specialist in American history at Cowan’s. “That said, I’ve never seen another cane owned by Douglass! It is especially significant that we were able to determine exactly when and where Douglass was gifted the walking stick,” Linn said. … “It is a rare privilege to hold something that we know belonged to one of the greatest figures of American history.”
“This walking stick is not only a notable object of national history, gifted to the preeminent abolitionist, writer and lecturer Frederick Douglass, it is a significant and meaningful piece of South Carolina history,” said JoAnn Ziese, the museum’s cultural history curator. “Adding this one-of-a-kind piece to our collection will help us continue to tell the wonderful stories of South Carolina for years to come.”
I’m curious to see if they tell the not-so-wonderful story of how South Carolina’s black militias were formed during Reconstruction to keep black voters from being murdered by white supremacist thugs, and how they were suppressed so thoroughly that even their beloved (by black people) Fourth of July parades in Charleston would be eliminated by the end of the century.