Alexander Graham Bell Defends His Butler

By Parker Donham

On March 7, here at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal marked the 135th anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell's patent for the telephone by reproducing Bell's quirky sketch of the device, submitted as part of the patent application. Later, Alexis linked to more of Bell's "delightfully weird sketches," which he found in a Library of Congress online archive of the Bell family's papers.

Bell was 29 when he received the patent, which made him a wealthy man. He spent much of the next half-century pursuing eclectic interests in aviation, sheep genetics, and water desalination at Beinn Bhreagh, a gorgeous estate a few miles across the Bras d'Or Lake from my home. Bell is still a big deal around here, and Parks Canada operates a museum in his honor at nearby Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Alexis's posts prompted me to explore the LOC's online database, where I turned up a curious episode in which Bell wrote President Theodore Roosevelt, asking him to intercede in the case of a black employee's Jim Crow treatment at the hands of Nova Scotia hoteliers. The story provides a rare glimpse into the Bell family's surprisingly progressive social attitudes.

Bell to Roosevelt.jpg

Charles F. Thompson was nominally Bell's butler, but biographer Robert Bruce more aptly describes him as the absent-minded inventor's "chief proxy in coping with the gritty details of domestic life." Thompson was 18 and living in a Washington rooming house when he met the Bells in 1887. Fire had broken out in the Bells' nearby home, and while quickly extinguished, it left Bell's papers in disarray and suffering water damage. A housekeeper recruited the rooming house residents to help clean up. Thompson proved adept at the rare skill of deciphering Bell's scrawled handwriting, and this led to a permanent position.

Like Bell, Thompson eventually became a frequent seasonal resident of Baddeck. On a visit to nearby Sydney in late November, 1904, he and his wife tried to check into the Grand Hotel, but were turned away. In a severe downpour, they were rejected at four other hotels, before finding refuge at a sixth.

When Thompson returned to Baddeck with a serious cold, Bell and his circle of friends in the town were outraged. The inventor wrote first to the U.S. Consul in Sydney:

I know Mr. Thompson very well as he has been in my employment for about twenty years, if not more," he wrote the consul. "He is an upright, conscientious man in whom I have the highest confidence. He has traveled with me in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and Great Britain, as well as in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and never outside of his own country has he been discriminated against on account of his color except in Sydney, Cape Breton Island -- at least so far as I know.

However one may deplore the existence of the color line in certain parts of the United States, we have hotels there specially for colored people, so that the exclusion of a respectable colored man from a public hotel in our country does not work the hardship it does in Sydney. Exclusion from six of the hotels of Sydney resulted in turning these people out into the cold and wet, during one of the most severe storms of the season without a place where they could lay their heads...

Mr. Thompson is now lying ill in my house here as the result of the exposure, and his wife also is far from well. I propose to call the attention of the State Department in Washington to the necessity of providing protection for colored citizens of the United States in Canada -- so as to prevent the possibility of the repetition of another such outrage as this. There is nothing in the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, or in their manners or characters to justify exclusion from any hotel. There is so little of the negro in Mr. Thompson's appearance that he has often -- in foreign countries -- been taken for a Japanese, while his wife might well pass for Spanish.

Click on the image above for a full-sized copy of Bell's subsequent letter to the president, requesting a state department investigation. There is no indication of a reply. The Bells' Baddeck neighbors convened and delivered a letter of apology to the ailing Thompson: 

We do not understand why a respectable couple (as we all know you to be) although colored, should be turned away from any Hotel, and we sincerely hope that you and Mrs. Thompson may long be spared to spend many summers on Canadian soil and receive treatment from the hands of the public that a gentleman of your esteem so well deserves.

Dance for Charles.jpg

Further poking around the Bell's online papers turned up Mabel Hubbard Bell's reflections on a farewell dance she staged for Thompson two years earlier, as he was preparing the leave Baddeck for Washington, where he was to be married. Mrs. Bell, a redoubtable figure in her own right, wrote: 

I realized last night how impossible it would have been to have given an entertainment like that in Washington. The farmers and farm help might have been invited, but they would not have come -- to greet a colored man -- and associate on equal terms with him -- the white girls would not have danced with a colored man like Charles -- even though -- as in this case -- he might have been gentlemanly in appearance and better educated than themselves.

[Mrs. Bell's emphasis. Click on ther image to view the entire journal entry.]

Alas, the Sydney episode was probably more typical of racial attitudes that prevailed in Nova Scotia at the time. Nova Scotia was a terminus for the Underground Railway, and more recent history is replete with examples of racism (here and here). Thompson's close association with the revered AGB undoubtedly played a key role in his acceptance by the Baddeck community. 

Thanks to Baddeck historian and Bell buff Jocelyn Bethune for help piecing together the background of the story.

Parker Donham, a writer and consultant who lives on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, blogs at
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

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