In the evening of the day of the inauguration, another new experience awaited me. The usual reception was given at the executive mansion, and though no colored persons had ever ventured to present themselves on such occasions, it seemed now that freedom had become the law of ‘the republic, now that colored men were on the battle-field mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country, it was not too great an assumption for a colored man to offer his congratulations to the President with those of other citizens. I decided to go, and sought in vain for some one of my own color to accompany me.
It is never an agreeable experience to go where there can be any doubt of welcome, and my colored friends had too often realized discomfiture from this cause to be willing to subject themselves to such unhappiness ; they wished me to go, as my New England colored friends in the long-ago liked very well to have me take passage on the first-class cars, and be hauled out and pounded by rough-handed brakemen, to make way for them.
It was plain, then, that some one must lead the way, and that if the colored man would have his rights, he must take them ; and now, though it was plainly quite the thing for me to attend President Lincoln’s reception, ” they all with one accord began to make excuse.” It was finally arranged that Mrs. Dorsey should bear me company, so together we joined in the grand procession of citizens from all parts of the country, and moved slowly towards the executive mansion. I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the 61ite of the land, I felt myself a man among men. I regret to be obliged to say, however, that this comfortable assurance was not of long duration, for on reaching the door, two policemen stationed there took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my color. The reader need not be told that this was a disagreeable set-back. But once in the battle, I did not think it well to submit to repulse. I told the officers I ,was quite sure there must be some mistake, for no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln ; and if he knew I was at the door he would desire my admission. They then, to put an end to the parley, as I suppose, for we were obstructing the doorway, and were not easily pushed aside, assumed an air of politeness, and offered to conduct me in.
We followed their lead, and soon found ourselves walking some planks out of a window, which had been arranged as a temporary passage for the exit of visitors. We halted so soon as we saw the trick, and I said to the officers: “You have deceived me. I shall not go out of this building till I see President Lincoln.” At this moment a gentleman who was passing in recognized me, and I said to him : ” Be so kind as to say to Mr Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door.” It was not long before Mrs. Dorsey and I walked into the spacious East Room, amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never witnessed before.
Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and home-like heanty. Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ” Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking me by the hand, he said, ” I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address ; how did you like it ? ” I said, ” Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a ittle, Douglass ; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” ” I am glad you liked it ! ” he said ; and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.
It came out that the officers at the White House had received no orders from Mr. Lincoln, or from any one else. They were simply complying with an old custom, the outgrowth of slavery, as dogs will sometimes rub their necks, long after their collars are removed, thinking they are still there. My colored friends were well pleased with what had seemed to them a doubtful experiment, and I believe were encouraged by its success to follow my example. I have found in my experience that the way to break down an unreasonable custom, is to contradict it in practice. To be sure in pursuing this course I have had to contend not merely with the white race, but with the black. The one has condemned me for my presumption iu daring to associate with them, and the other for pushing myself where they take it for granted I am not wanted. I am pained to think that the latter objection springs largely from a consciousness’ of inferiority, for as colors alone can have nothing against each other, and the conditions of human association are founded upon character rather than color, and character depends upon mind and morals, there can be nothing blameworthy in people thus equal in meeting each other on the plane of civil or social rights.
Quoted in Frederick Douglass,Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1893 edn.), reprinted in Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies. Library of America Series (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1994) p. 803–04.;