Dinner With Walt has acquired a second original Whitman autograph! Along with it comes an early American Civil Rights history lesson, one that has been lost in the shadows of the ages. But with thanks to Walt Whitman it’s once again brought back into the light of present day.
The year is 1868, just a few years after the close of the US Civil War. In Alexandria, VA, Catherine Brown, a 28 year old African American, US Senate employee (a laundress who had been promoted to a “ladies retiring room attendant,”) was ready to board a train to return to Washington, D.C. As she approached the platform to board the train, a railroad police officer stopped her and informed her that “because of her race” she could not ride in this car and needed to ride in the car “for the colored people in the front.” Undeterred, Ms. Brown stated to the officer, “I bought my ticket to go to Washington in this car, and I am going in it; before I leave this car I will suffer death.” Upon which the officer “violently ejected her from the car and she was dragged along the pavement” suffering numerous injuries.
Benjamin H. Hinds, a Special Agent of the US Treasury Department, had previously boarded the train and did not witness the atrocious incident as it occurred. Upon taking his seat, he had overheard the outrage and disgust of nearby passengers discussing the event. Hinds had been previously acquainted with Ms. Brown; he had known her for at least two years prior. Upon hearing of the event, Hinds went out to investigate what had ensued.
In his testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee, who later investigated the case, Hinds described how he approached Brown and “could see that she was badly injured and told her that if she would get into the car, [he] would go with her and see that she would not be molested.” The testimony also notes that “the two traveled together to Washington where she sought medical help and the injuries kept her in bed for weeks to come.”
Ms. Brown eventually sued the railroad company in the Supreme Court, and won a settlement. Follow these links below to read more about this historical case:
Now for the Whitman part of the story, which leaves more questions than answers. At this time, in 1868, Whitman would have been working in Washington, D.C. at the Attorney General’s Office (thanks to his ardent supporter, William D. O’Connor who helped secure Whitman’s employment in the AG’s office). Whitman was not directly involved in this incident, however he had surely heard of it and undoubtedly followed the many news articles reporting it. Given Whitman’s humanitarian inclinations, one can, with certainty, surmise that Whitman would have strongly supported Ms. Brown’s case for justice. Futher, Whitman would have viewed Hinds as the humanitarian hero of this atrocious event.
Unfortunately, this brief inscription by Whitman to B. H. Hinds bears no date with which one might be able definitively link it to this specific event. Further research will be needed to determine what, if any, relationship Whitman and Hinds possessed. Were they mere acquaintances passing to/from on a train in D.C.? Or perhaps was Whitman endorsing his support to Hinds? Maybe Hinds encountered Whitman on a train and knew of Leaves of Grass and approached Whitman for his autograph? Only further research will reveal the rest of the story.