In 1877 Douglass purchased a home in Uniontown (now Anacostia), which is now a National Historical Site. He remained there until his death, serving as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia from 1881 to 18??. Devoted increasingly to his family and to lecturing, Douglass lived out his life as "The Sage of Anacostia." At his death a public service was held at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in downtown Washington; public schools were closed and a Letter Carrier honor guard attended Douglass at the service.
In 1870, Douglass had moved from Rochester, New York (last stop on the Underground Railroad) to Washington to become editor of The National Era, the official weekly journal of the National Colored Labor Union. In 1871 he was appointed to the Legislative Council of the District of Columbia. He continued to edit the National Era (renamed The New National Era) until 1877, when he was appointed U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia. That same year he purchased a home in Uniontown (see 48). Douglass is perhaps best remembered in labor circles for his ringing declaration that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to and you will have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue til they have resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they suppress."
Cheap Labor, is a phrase that has no cheering music for the masses. Those who demand it, and seek to acquire it, have but little sympathy with common humanity. It is the cry of the few against the many. When we inquire who are the men that are continually vociferating for cheap labor, we find not the poor, the simple, and the lowly; not the class who dig and toil for their daily bread; not the landless, feeble, and defense-less portion of society, but the rich and powerful, the crafty and schem-ing, those who live by the sweat of other men’s faces, and who have no intention of cheapening labor by adding themselves to the laboring forces of society. It is the deceitful cry of the fortunate against the un-fortunate, of the idle against the industrious, of the taper-fingered dan-dy against the hard-handed working man. Labor is a noble word, and expresses a noble idea. Cheap labor, too, seems harmless enough, sounds well to hear, and looks well upon paper.
One of the official titles Frederick Douglass held during his long career was President of the Colored National Labor Union. Preceding him in that position was Isaac Myers, a pioneering early black labor leader who, like Frederick Douglass, also gained his first experience as an industrial worker as a caulker. In the late 1850s, the caulkers were being paid $1.75 per day—which was more than many white workers earned in similar trades. The high pay did not go un-noticed by shipyard owners and the influx of immigrant workers seeking jobs on the waterfront. In 1858, the historian Thomas wrote, “riots were instigated against black workers.”
Partly in response to similar events, In 1853, in a letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Douglass wrote “Prejudice against the free colored people in the United States has shown itself nowhere so invincible as among mechanics [a term at the time for skilled tradesmen].”
In response, some shipyard owners refused to hire black caulkers, and the situation was tense for several years. At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, white workers staged a successful strike that forced shipyards to dismiss Afri-can-Americans. Approximately 1,000 dock workers lost their jobs.
In response to the white workers’ successful strike, Myers organized a group of black and white businessmen to create a new shipyard, the Chesapeake Ma-rine Railway and Dry Dock Company, a cooperative that employed 300 black workers, and some white tradesmen, at $3 a day.
In a similar move, activists with ONE DC are currently organizing a Black Workers Center to create and maintain racial and economic justice through popular education, policy campaigns, direct action and the creation of work-er-owned coops and other worker-owned alternatives.