Louisiana Senator Solomon Weathersbee Downs

I wrote this article in August, 2007 for Louisiana Road Trips Magazine:

Solomon W Downs

Solomon Weatherbee Downs was born in Montgomery County, TN in 1801, the illegitimate son of William Weatherbee.  At a young age, Downs’ parents moved to Ouachita Parish and he was sent to Transylvania University in Lexington, KY to finish his education.  Downs studied law at the University, and was admitted to the bar in 1826.  Downs opened his first law practice in Bayou Sara, LA.  In 1834, William Weatherbee died and Downs returned to Ouachita Parish to manage the family property.  In his father’s will, Downs was legitimized as William Weatherbee’s only son.    It was around this time that Solomon Downs was involved in a street duel over a political manner.  The name of his opponent is lost to history [since writing this article, it has been found that his opponent may have been Ferdinand Morgan], but a few details of the duel remain.  According to the New York Times in his obituary, Downs had been shot through the lungs.  A piece of the wadding from the shot was lodged in one lung.  The site became inflamed and gave him pain.  Doctors gave him little hope of recovering.  While he was resting, word came that General Andrew Jackson was passing by.  Against Doctor’s orders, Downs got up from his bed and went to the window to see him.  The exertion brought on a coughing fit, and the wadding was coughed up.  The wound healed and he recovered.  From then on, Downs credited General Jackson with saving his life.

After moving to the Monroe area, Downs settled in and practiced law with some of the leading citizens of the day.  Downs was also highly involved in politics.  For his support in the Presidential election, President Pierce appointed Downs United States Attorney for the District of Louisiana.  He was also involved with the State Constitutional Convention where he became known as the father of the Louisiana State Constitution.  Downs’ reputation as an able lawyer grew, until finally he was elected State Senator to Congress.

When Senator Downs moved to Washington, D.C., he took with him his trusted manservant, Richard Barrington.  Barrington was there when Downs entertained the likes of Daniel Webster, Horace Greely, Thad Stevens and Sam Houston.  Barrington is quoted as saying Senator Downs could always get the best of Daniel Webster in an argument!  Downs served in the Senate from 1847-1853.  One of his major accomplishments was to help get Texas admitted as a State.

After his service as a Senator, Downs was made collector of the Port of New Orleans, and he held this position till his death on August 14, 1854 at Crab Orchard Springs, KY.  The Senator’s body was brought back to Monroe and buried on his massive plantation.  No headstone was placed to mark his resting spot.  His adopted son and namesake never placed one.  His wife was never named in his will, so she had little money to buy one.  It would take a former slave to set things right.

Richard Barrington and his wife Leticia were given their freedom after Downs’ death.  They were also given $500 and permitted to reside and cultivate land on the Downs Plantation for as long as they lived.  It is said Barrington never farmed the land.  He started his own barbershop on Grand Street and was quite successful.  Barrington had been taught how to read and write as a slave.  As a result, he knew how important education was.  He saved up enough money to send his son Frank to school back East.  When Frank returned, Richard donated some of his land for one of the first African-American schools in Monroe.  That school would grow to become Monroe Colored High School and later Carroll High School.  Barrington had noticed that his former master had no headstone to mark his grave.  To the amazement of the local white citizens, he bought an Italian marble headstone, four feet high, sixteen inches wide and two inches thick.  Two male clasped hands (symbolizing friendship) are carved at the top of the stone and the following inscription was placed:  “S.W. Downs, Died August 13, 1854; aged 53 yrs., 11 mos., and 18 days.  Peace to his Ashes!  Erected by his old servant, Richard, as a small token of his gratitude.”

Through the years, the headstone was broken and had fallen over.  Dirt had gradually drifted over the marker until many people forgot where he was buried.  On a cool February day in 1937, Mr. C.A. Mikesell was plowing a garden spot on a vacant lot on Richmond Street, when his plow hit something solid.  Brushing away the dirt, he read the name S.W. Downs.  Digging further, he found an iron, body-shaped casket.  The casket had eroded in the middle and the glass faceplate was gone.  Once city officials got wind of the find, Mayor Bernstein provided a prominent burial plot at the entrance of Riverview Cemetery for the Senator to rest.  There he was reburied.  The only thing marking the spot was the broken pieces of his original headstone.  It was assumed the government would provide a proper marker.  This was not to be.  There he has rested undisturbed and unmarked for almost seventy years.  In 2000, City workers accidentally found the good Senator again and the remains of his headstone.  At the present time, no new marker has been placed and his grave is in danger of disappearing again.

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