What Frederick Douglass saw

We read a couple of passages from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative recently. Let’s read some more from Frederick Douglass today.

Mr. Hopkins remained but a short time in the office of overseer. Why his career was so short, I do not know, but suppose he lacked the necessary severity to suit Colonel Lloyd. Mr. Hopkins was succeeded by Mr. Austin Gore, a man possessing, in an eminent degree, all those traits of character indispensable to what is called a first-rate overseer. Mr. Gore had served Colonel Lloyd, in the capacity of overseer, upon one of the out-farms, and had shown himself worthy of the high station of overseer upon the home or Great House Farm.

Mr. Gore was proud, ambitious, and persevering. He was artful, cruel, and obdurate. He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man. It afforded scope for the full exercise of all his powers, and he seemed to be perfectly at home in it. He was one of those who could torture the slightest look, word, or gesture, on the part of the slave, into impudence, and would treat it accordingly. There must be no answering back to him; no explanation was allowed a slave, showing himself to have been wrongfully accused. Mr. Gore acted fully up to the maxim laid down by slaveholders,—”It is better that a dozen slaves should suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be convicted, in the presence of the slaves, of having been at fault.”

Does that remind you of anything? Does it sound like anything in the news yesterday and today?

His savage barbarity was equalled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge. Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging, he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.

A thrill of horror flashed through every soul upon the plantation, excepting Mr. Gore. He alone seemed cool and collected. He was asked by Colonel Lloyd and my old master, why he resorted to this extraordinary expedient. His reply was, (as well as I can remember,) that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,—one which, if suffered to pass without some such demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites. Mr. Gore’s defence was satisfactory. He was continued in his station as overseer upon the home plantation. His fame as an overseer went abroad. His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation. It was committed in the presence of slaves, and they of course could neither institute a suit, nor testify against him; and thus the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

That’s our background.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community. Mr. Thomas Lanman, of St. Michael’s, killed two slaves, one of whom he killed with a hatchet, by knocking his brains out. He used to boast of the commission of the awful and bloody deed. I have heard him do so laughingly, saying, among other things, that he was the only benefactor of his country in the company, and that when others would do as much as he had done, we should be relieved of “the d——d niggers.”

That too is our background.

The wife of Mr. Giles Hicks, living but a short distance from where I used to live, murdered my wife’s cousin, a young girl between fifteen and sixteen years of age, mangling her person in the most horrible manner, breaking her nose and breastbone with a stick, so that the poor girl expired in a few hours afterward. She was immediately buried, but had not been in her untimely grave but a few hours before she was taken up and examined by the coroner, who decided that she had come to her death by severe beating. The offence for which this girl was thus murdered was this:—She had been set that night to mind Mrs. Hicks’s baby, and during the night she fell asleep, and the baby cried. She, having lost her rest for several nights previous, did not hear the crying. They were both in the room with Mrs. Hicks. Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.

And one more:

Colonel Lloyd’s slaves were in the habit of spending a part of their nights and Sundays in fishing for oysters, and in this way made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance. An old man belonging to Colonel Lloyd, while thus engaged, happened to get beyond the limits of Colonel Lloyd’s, and on the premises of Mr. Beal Bondly. At this trespass, Mr. Bondly took offence, and with his musket came down to the shore, and blew its deadly contents into the poor old man.

That was then, and this is now.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    “the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites”

    Dr. Gerald Horne, in “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America”, notes that emancipation was always framed in such terms. SOMEBODY had to be the slaves, as capitalism cannot survive without a slave class. In fact, the colonial objections to British rule typically took this form – the British were treating the colonists “as slaves”. Thus, those arguing for “independency” would whip their fellow colonists into a panic over the prospect of the Crown sending armed Africans in redcoats to put down their rebellion, and would, in fact, turn the tables, moving the erstwhile slaves into the position of “master” and the rebellious colonials into the “slave” position. The fact that this prospect was greeted with such horror and outrage simply speaks to the widespread acceptance of just how terrible was the slave’s lot in the New World.

    Anyone who is interested can read an excerpt here: https://libcom.org/history/introduction-counter-revolution-1776

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Did ANYONE think there was the remotest possibility that any charges would be leveled against Michael Brown’s policeman-killer??

    It is so difficult to get a conviction against a law-enforcement officer that it is a virtually impossible prospect. There is truly a double standard and a two-tiered (more tiers elsewhere) justice system – the police are considered innocent until proven guilty and no standard of proof exists by which the police can be found guilty.

    Slavery only ended officially.

  3. says

    “Did ANYONE think there was the remotest possibility that any charges would be leveled against Michael Brown’s policeman-killer??”

    No. We all knew that such a thing almost never happens. The police, like any citizen, are presumed innocent, but then they are consistently FOUND innocent, if they’re charged at all. That the result is entirely expected doesn’t make it sting less, though. This was an opportunity to show that, at the very least, the police are to be held accountable for their actions. An indictment would have been a message, small as it might be with the statistical nigh-impossibility of a conviction, that the police cannot merely act with impunity. It would have indicated that the lives of everyone in the community at least matter, are at least an item of concern for the local government.

    The evidence was heard for nearly three months. The grand jury considered the evidence for 70 hours. That it took so long to look at the evidence, and that the evidence was of such a character as to allow for significant deliberation, would seem an obvious indicator that it was sufficient to at least be tried in court. The signs were there that the trend was going to be bucked here, that the message to the community would be sent that they did indeed matter. And yet, the unsurprising thing happened. The decision followed the trend. Things went as expected.

    That being the case, we can hardly be surprised at the violence that followed. It’s not justified, as the original shooting wasn’t justified. But it’s unsurprising, as the non-indictment was unsurprising.

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