Very Good. Item #6261
George A. Douglas was the second African-American admitted to the New Jersey Bar, an alternate delegate to the 1908 GOP convention, and the first black lawyer to appear before the New Jersey Supreme Court. This archive of his late 19th and early 20th century familial and professional documents emblematizes significant points on three trajectories: his personal one, a familial one, and a racial one. An unpublished story (see details below) is the jewel hidden among these papers.
Douglas was born in New York City in 1866. He attended Howard University both as an undergraduate and for law school. By the time of his death in 1934, he was honored as a pioneer in legal practice for Newark African Americans, and the “Dean of Negro Lawyers.” His obituary is the front page headline in the Newark Herald, “New Jersey’s Leading Colored Weekly,” for 5 January 1935. That issue of the paper is included in this collection.
His wife Armita, née Harris, who appears in the archive’s legal documents and correspondence, was the daughter of a Virginia stable hand; her family had moved northward as part of the Great Migration, and she would meet George in Newark. She would eventually become a leading New Jersey suffragist and President of the New Jersey Federation of Colored Women’s Club.
Within these two racial and familial trajectories are personal moments of great power. On 21 Oct 1890, Douglas’s father Henry wrote to him at Howard: “Now George, about your studying to become a lawyer; it’s very good but had you asked my advice I would have preferred you to enter the ministry as there are so many better chances throughout the country for our color. But [if your] mind is now made up I wish you success.” Of note: father Henry’s return address on this letter is the “Colored Home, 65th St and 1st Ave,” in New York City.
In a letter of 5 Dec 1897, George writes to fiancée Armita offering to break off the engagement, since his poverty as a young lawyer—a young black lawyer, we can note—has left him unable to shower her with the attentions and gifts she had apparently been asking for. Marriage ensued in 1899 nonetheless.
The archive contains an unexpected treasure: a “flip the narrative” unpublished short story of just under 1500 words that might today be conceived and filmed by Jordan Peele. Douglas signs it with the racially agnostic penname H. Kenneth Andrews, probably for the same reason that the Brontë sisters used gender-agnostic names when they submitted manuscripts: he wanted to immunize himself from racial dismissal. The story is set in the closing days of Sherman’s March to the Sea.
The story in summary:
Mandy, an uneducated kitchen slave, serves as a gifted cook and maid of all work to a rich white planter couple, whose kind treatment she is grateful for. She speaks in the inflected English assigned to black characters by most white writers of the era. The plantation where she works is perilously close to being overrun by Sherman’s liberating, but destructive, March to the Sea. Wanting to protect her despairing owners, Mandy walks on foot to confront Sherman’s army, begging them not to destroy her master’s house and holdings. Northern soldiers explain that they’ve come to free her, and that, once free, she will no longer be a slave, and can be paid for her work. She doesn’t fully grasp their meaning. Sherman’s army descends despite her pleas, destroying her owners’ house and holdings, but Mandy and owners survive the devastation. Later, after the war, Mandy is able to open a little restaurant. Her destitute former owners somehow now live in a modest, but respectable, house, modestly but respectably appointed. After the aged couple’s death, their heirs learn that it was Mandy who bought the house for them, furnished it, and saved them from starvation and degradation.
The archive comprises 27 items:
- 9 fully signed and executed legal documents on original legal forms, with dates from 1898 to 1917:
6 deeds, 1 mortgage, 1 land contract, and 1 will executed, variously, in Saratoga County, NY and Essex County, NJ. All but one are associated with the immediate family and property of Armita Harris; the additional deed is to George A Douglas himself.
- 3 Howard University printed programs or invitations: Literary Entertainment at Howard University (1887); Undergraduate Commencement for George Douglas (1891); Law Class Commencement for George Douglas (1893).
- 1 autograph signed letter from the father of George Douglas to his son, dated 21 October 1890.
- 1 autograph signed letter from George to his then fiancée Armita Harris, dated 5 December 1897.
- 1 five-page signed draft typescript of unpublished short story “A Touch of Nature.”
- 1 Certificate of Attestation: George A. Douglas as Alternate Delegate to the National Republican Convention in Chicago, 13 April 1908.
- 1 envelope containing 9 family photographs of the young Douglas family around the turn of the century, mailed to Armita in 1938, after George’s death.
- 1 copy of the 5 January 1935 issue of the Newark Herald, with George Douglas’s death as headline and his obituary and photograph above the fold.