Why's That: One 'S' Makes All the Difference

Sep 10, 2015

Nineteenth-century abolitionist and reformer Frederick Douglass.
Credit Brady-Handy Collection / Library of Congress

Each month, WMUK’s “Why’s That?” delves into a question you send us and tries to find an answer. You can submit your idea here. September’s story is about names – two of them, well-known in Kalamazoo and nationally, and how they might be connected.

Mike Hoag of Kalamazoo sent us the following question:

So, you ever notice that DouglaS Ave has one "S" while the Douglass Community Association has two? Why's that?

(The answer I've heard is a fascinating story of history and resistance, tying Kalamazoo and Senator Charles Stuart to two famous civil war figures named Douglas(s).

Hoag explains how he came to wonder.

“When we moved to Kalamazoo, since we lived on Douglas Avenue, we assumed that that had to do with Frederick Douglass and we were very proud of that,” he says.

Frederick Douglass is a hero of the struggle for African-American equality in the United States. An abolitionist who himself escaped from slavery, Douglass was a renowned speaker, writer and social reformer in the nineteenth century.

But, Hoag says, “Then we discovered that there were two Douglas(s)es in Kalamazoo, and two S’s on one and only one S on the other.”

And Douglas Avenue, with one S, probably wasn’t named for Frederick Douglass with a double S. Instead, Hoag learned that it might be named for another famous nineteenth-century American, US Senator Stephen Douglas.

“From what I understand, he opposed Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and in that way his name became associated with essentially a pro-slavery stance in American politics during the Civil War,” he says.

That would make Stephen Douglas the political opposite of Frederick Douglass. Whom, Hoag knows, does have a namesake in Kalamazoo - the Douglass Community Association. For decades it’s been a center of African-American cultural life in Kalamazoo County.

Hoag thought he might have heard that “naming the community association after Frederick Douglass was done in a small way in response to the road name or the street name.”

That’s the question: Did the founders of the Douglass Community Association intend it as a response to the one-S Douglas?

Why does Kalamazoo have a street named after Stephen Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois who ran against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election? Historian Tom Dietz has an answer.

US Senator Stephen A. Douglas
Credit Library of Congress

“Specifically because his buddy laid out the neighborhood laid out the neighborhood known as the Stuart Addition to the city,” he says.

Charles Stuart got to know Stephen Douglas when they were both serving in the US Senate. Stuart brought Douglas to Kalamazoo during the 1860 campaign.

Like other Democrats at the time, Stephen Douglas did not oppose slavery.

“The political line that they took was that if you push the issue of slavery too hard, if you rock the boat, you’re going to destroy the Union. And that was the campaign that Douglas is running on and what most of the Democrats would have said,” he says.

But it’s not as though most Republicans denounced slavery as a moral evil.

“That was by far a very minority position even within the Republican party, even within the Republican coalition. The Republicans in general said, ‘let slavery alone in the south. They can have their slaves, they’ve had their slaves – but no further,’” he says.

Stephen Douglas died in 1861 – less than a year after he lost the election to Lincoln. Frederick Douglass, born only a few years after Stephen, outlived him by more than 30 years. Douglass had been dead less than three decades when African-American leaders in Kalamazoo chose his name for a new organization.

“Douglass was created in 1919 but - it was established as a safe haven for Negro soldiers that were stationed at what was then called Camp Custer," says former Douglass Community Association director Moses Walker.

By 1940, when Walker was born, the association was at the core of African-American life in Kalamazoo County.

“I grew up here, I was born in Kalamazoo, so basically I refer to myself as a child of Douglass. I went to nursery school, at Douglass, I went to day care, day camp…learned how to play sports, how to dance, how to shoot pool, how to play ping pong,” he says.

But Walker is certain there’s no connection between the street’s name and the association’s.

“That had nothing to do with it. The Douglass Community Association was really named for Frederick Douglass,” he says.

Charles Warfield, who also started going to the Douglass Community Association as a toddler in the 1940s, says he’s never heard of any connection.

“I knew who Frederick Douglass was because my father told me about him. But I never made the connection between Douglas street and this place,” he says.

The director of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society also says she’s never heard of a link. And nothing jumped out in the Kalamazoo Public Library’s file. Mike Hoag had talked to someone who spoke of a connection, but she has since died.

Hoag says he’s all right with a less-than-definitive answer if it leads to an interesting discussion. He says Douglas is now Kalamazoo’s most diverse neighborhood – a big change since the Civil War era.

“And that kind of shows us in a way how far we’ve come since that time not too long ago when my house and that neighborhood were already here in Kalamazoo. And maybe it also shows us that we still have some work to do going forward,” he says.

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