March 17, 1877 | US Marshal Frederick Douglass

 Famed Orator and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

“[My work as Marshal] made me the daily witness in the criminal court of a side of the District life to me most painful and repulsive.”             -Frederick Douglass

Famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was appointed US Marshal of the District of Columbia in 1877. He served in the prominent office for four years during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. A fit 59-year-old, Douglass walked everyday to and from his home in Anacostia to his work at Old City Hall in Washington, DC. He administered the requirements of the office admirably, but admitted in his last autobiography that being a constant witness to some of the worst aspects of humanity was “most painful and repulsive.”*

Douglass’ discomfort with the role might also have stemmed from his early experience with the US Marshals. As the designated enforcers of the Fugitive Slave Law, deputy marshals had pursued Douglass, an escaped slave, forcing him to flee the country. While an account in an April 1877 issue of the Evening Star might be apocryphal it certainly sums up the irony of the situation:

“An ex-constable was in the criminal court at Washington on business the other day, and was asked by one of the bailiffs if he was looking for Marshal Douglass. ‘No sir,’ was the reply, ‘not now; but there was a time, when he was a fugitive slave, when I tried hard to find him.’”


*For an account of Douglass’ time as US Marshal of the District see John Muller’s Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C., The Lion of Anacostia.