Day after Day, Year after Year, Century after Century,
Bondage without rest, Toil without reward.
These are the Children of Misery, the Afflicted, the Hopeless, the Oppressed.
Exodus, the Movie
Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.
Attributed to Frederick Douglass
There’s a lot of versions of the honest truth….
Fire at the Smithsonian, January 25, 1865
“Papa, nooooo.” Anna cried out to her father, Joseph Henry, America’s greatest scientist. She had followed him to the upstairs room afraid for what he was about to do.
“Oh, Anna. I’m glad you’re here.” Joseph Henry replied calmly. “Someone should be here to witness.”
“There must be a better way to make your point. You told me that Jeff Davis himself wishes it all were different and that we could just live in peace.”
“I have done little to help my country and now it is late. Soon the war will be over and all will be lost. This is the only useful thing left for me to do.”
Joseph Henry was the caretaker of the Castle in Washington, which housed the entire Smithsonian Institution. He lived with his family in the downstairs apartment. He toured the entire structure daily obsessed with his fear that flaws in the construction of the building could lead to massive fire. He was convinced that the apartment would be safe from the conflagration that was soon to begin, soon to begin at his own hand.
A few months before, Confederate troops gathered in Alexandria for what was thought to be an assault on Washington. Joseph Henry climbed the extra staircase up to the top of the tallest tower of the Castle in an ill-fated attempt to establish a way to signal to his friend, Jefferson Davis, to help the Confederate cause. Joseph Henry was caught but spared due to the intervention of President Lincoln. Today he had a different mission. Joseph Henry hated living in the Castle. Against his strong objection, this room on the upper floor was recently opened to the public as an art museum, soon to be showing the brilliant portraits of Indian chiefs painted by John Mix Stanley. “They shall traipse through my house no more,” Joseph Henry said to Anna. Henry hated the art museum, hated John Mix Stanley, hated people, and hated much of what was passing for knowledge in America. “This will be a place for science as God intended.”
Joseph Henry found the book of poems written by Phillis Wheatley, which she brought to England in her unsuccessful attempt to sell her work. It was the only known copy still existing, and had been given to the Smithsonian by a Duchess of Northumberland. He went to the crates that contained many of the unpublished works of James Smithson, works that only he, as their caretaker, knew existed. He pulled out the only known copies of Smithson’s The Equality of the Races, and The Evils of Slavery, and a book that Smithson wrote with a former slave called The Worthy Life and Times of Bill Richmond. He threw them in the pile of books and papers that he was building in the center of the room. “They told me this was to be a place of knowledge, not nonsense,” Joseph Henry muttered. “Teach slaves how to read and this is what happens. Look what America has come to. No one will know of this nonsense,” he said to Anna.
He removed the paintings of Indian chiefs that had already been hung on the walls and threw them in the pile. “They should burn just fine,” he said. “A fitting end for the savages.”
“Please, papa, not the paintings,” Anna implored. Joseph Henry was not listening.
James Smithson had been a scientist of little note until he bequeathed his fortune to America to establish a place “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” A debate as to what that meant raged in Washington from the day the money arrived in America in 1838. In 1846, a young architect from New York, James Renwick, Jr., whose brilliant father was a friend of Joseph Henry, was brought to Washington to build a Norman castle in honor of the Northumberlands of England, of whom Smithson was thought to be a bastard son. Renwick’s vision was that the building would have many uses; laboratories for scientists, galleries for the arts, and lecture rooms for the curious. Those opposed to slavery also had another idea, that the Institution would serve their purposes by educating the nation on the evils of slavery. By the time Joseph Henry was appointed as the first Secretary of the Institution, the building was near completion. Joseph Henry immediately requested that it be torn down, to be replaced by a practical building of laboratories. He almost had his way but was thwarted by the Renwicks, who Henry grew to hate as well. Over the objection of Joseph Henry, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists spoke at the Smithsonian Institution and helped turn much of the nation against slavery, even as that brought the nation to certain war.
“Anna, see here how poorly this building was constructed. The other day the workman brought this stove to fight the chill and instead of venting it out the flue, they vented it into the attic. It would have started a fire then if I had not intervened. How I should have just let that happen. That is what you must tell your sister to put in her silly diary. The workers started the fire. A sad day for Washington indeed.”
“Oh, father, you mustn’t!” Anna pleaded to a stoic Joseph Henry.
“Savages,” he said, as he gathered embers from the stove and lit the waiting pile.