Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on (or around) Valentine’s Day in 1818. In his 70-odd years of life, he escaped his captivity, became one of the…
repost – in memory
Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page from Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
On July 5, 1852 approximately 3.5 million African Americans were enslaved — roughly 14% of the total population of the United States. That was the state of the nation when Frederick Douglass was asked to deliver a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration.
He accepted and, on a day white Americans celebrated their independence and freedom from the oppression of the British crown, Douglass delivered his now-famous speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July. In it, Douglass offered one of the most thought provoking and powerful testaments to the hypocrisy, bigotry and inhumanity of slavery ever given.
Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass
(1847-1852) by Samuel J. Miller.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Douglass told the crowd that the arguments against slavery were well understood. What was needed was “fire” not light on the subject; “thunder” not a gentle “shower” of reason. Douglass would tell the audience:
The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, most likely in February 1818 — birth dates of slaves were rarely recorded. He was put to work full-time at age six, and his life as a young man was a litany of savage beatings and whippings. At age twenty, he successfully escaped to the North. In Massachusetts he became known as a voice against slavery, but that also brought to light his status as an escaped slave. Fearing capture and re-enslavement, Douglass went to England and continued speaking out against slavery.
He eventually raised enough money to buy his freedom and returned to America. He settled in Rochester, New York in 1847 and began to champion equality and freedom for slaves in earnest. By then, his renown extended far beyond America’s boundaries. He had become a man of international stature.
One suspects that Rochester city leaders had Douglass’ fame and reputation as a brilliant orator in mind when they approached him to speak at their Independence Day festivities. But with his opening words, Douglass’ intent became clear — decry the hypocrisy of the day as it played out in the lives of the slaves:
Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
You can easily imagine the wave of unease that settled over his audience. The speech was long, as was the fashion of the day. A link to the entire address can be found at the end of this Our American Story. When you read it you will discover that, to his credit, Douglass was uncompromising and truthful:
This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn … What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? … a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings … hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
US Stamp honoring
Frederick Douglass, 1967.
US Postal Service
Reaction to the speech was strong, but mixed. Some were angered, others appreciative. What I’ve always thought most impressive about Douglass’ speech that day was the discussion it provoked immediately and in the weeks and months that followed.
Certainly much has changed since Douglass’ speech. Yet the opportunity to discuss and debate the important impact of America’s racial history is very much a part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Douglass’ words remind us that many have struggled to ensure that the promise of liberty be applied equally to all Americans — regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. And that the struggle for equality is never over.
So, as we gather together at picnics, parades, and fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July, let us remember those, like Frederick Douglass, who fought and sacrificed to help America live up to its ideals of equality, fair play and justice.
Frederick Douglass’ life and words have left us a powerful legacy. His story, and the African American story, is part of us all.
To you and your family, have a joyous and safe Fourth of July and thank you for your interest in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
All the best,
P.S. To read the full text Frederick Douglass’ speech of July 5, 1852, click here: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=162
hope you will consider making a contribution to the Museum. Thank you for your support.
On This Day …Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Irish writer Oscar Wilde
1895 – Oscar Wilde’s final play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” opened at the St. James’ Theatre in London.
Oscar Wilde (1854) Wilde was an Irish poet , novelist, and playwright who mocked social conventions and scandalized English society with his unorthodox ideas and conduct. He is best known for his sophisticated, witty plays, among them Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest , as well as his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, challenged Victorian morality in his writing and life, and was infamously imprisoned for being gay
Born January 19, 1809, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. American short-story writer, poet, critic, and editor Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of mystery and horror initiated the modern detective story, and the atmosphere in his tales of horror is unrivaled in American fiction.
and on January 29 Raven receives accolades
His The Raven (1845) numbers among the best-known poems in national literature.
1845 – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was published for the first time in the “New York Evening Mirror.”
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet.
He was born in New York City on the 1st of August 1819.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is a novel was written by Herman Melville, it was first published in 1851.
Moby-Dick is considered to be one of the Great American Novels and a treasure of world literature.
– About Moby-Dick:
The story of Moby-Dick tells of the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab.
Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has one purpose on this voyage: to seek out Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white sperm whale.
In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab’s boat and bit off his leg, which now drives Ahab to take revenge.
Herman Melville Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, age 72.
When he died, he was almost completely forgotten. It was not until the “Melville Revival” in the early 20th century that his work won recognition, especially Moby-Dick, which was hailed as one of the literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.
Moby Dick; Or The Whale
Bartleby, the Scrivener – A Story of Wall-Street
Typee, a Narrative of the Marquesas Islands
The White Jacket
Billy Budd & Other Stories (Wordsworth Classics)
Pierre; or The Ambiguities
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
– Movies about Moby-Dick:
There have also been several movies created about Moby-Dick
The Sea Beast (1926) – John Barrymore as Captain Ahab
Moby Dick (1930) – John Barrymore as Captain Ahab
Moby Dick (1956) – Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab
Moby Dick (1978) – Jack Aranson as 13 characters
Moby Dick (1998) – Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab
Moby Dick (2011) – William Hurt as Captain Ahab