Tag Archives: World Literature

July 5, 1852 – What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?

repost – in memory

NMAAHCLonnie 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,

Lonnie Bunch

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.



As the White House gets ready for Tuesday’s State of the Union, it’s been a busy week at the White House: The President announced important reforms to the National Security Agency and new measures to prevent sexual assault. He also honored Martin Luther King with a service project at DC Central Kitchen, signed the 2014 appropriations bill into law to fund the government, and hosted a conference of mayors.

Watch the 199th episode of West Wing Week:

West Wing Week 1/24/14 or, "199!"


Top Stories
A Day in the Life: Inside the State of the Union with Valerie Jarrett

Yesterday, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett took over our Instagram account to give us an up close and personal look into preparation for this year’s State of the Union address.


Join a Virtual Road Trip with President Obama on Google+

Later next week, President Obama will take a virtual roadtrip across the country via Google+ Hangouts to discuss the issues and policies laid out in the speech with citizens joining from around the country.


Big Data and the Future of Privacy

Last Friday, the President spoke to the American people, and the international community, about how to keep us safe from terrorism in a changing world while upholding America’s commitment to liberty and privacy that our values and Constitution require. Our national security challenges are real, but that is surely not the only space where changes in technology are altering the landscape and challenging conceptions of privacy.


Making 2014 a Year of Action to Expand Opportunit​ies for the Middle Class

Weekly Address: Making 2014 a Year of Action to Expand Opportunities for the Middle ClassIn this week’s address, President Obama said 2014 will be a year of action, and called on both parties to help make this a breakthrough year for the United States by bringing back more good jobs and expanding opportunities for the middle class.

Click here to watch this week’s Weekly Address.

Watch: President Obama's Weekly Address


Top Stories
Expanding Educational Opportunity: And yesterday, a group of leaders in higher education joined the President and First Lady at the White House to take the next step toward ensuring that every child, rich or poor, has the opportunity for a quality college education so they can get ahead.“We’ve got philanthropists and business leaders here; we’ve got leaders of innovative non-for-profits; we’ve got college presidents — from state universities and historically black colleges to Ivy League universities and community colleges,” President Obama said. “More than 100 colleges and 40 organizations are announcing new commitments to help more young people not only go to, but graduate from college.” These leaders made the commitment to take action on areas crucial to making college a reality to more kids.

The day before, the First Lady hosted a discussion on education to support the President’s “North Star” Goal, which states that by 2020, Americans will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

America’s Newest High-Tech Manufacturing Hub: President Obama visited Raleigh, North Carolina on Wednesday to announce that Raleigh is going to be America’s newest manufacturing innovation hub. This new hub will bring leading companies, universities, and federal research together under one roof to help develop the next generation of power electronics. President Obama has proposed building a network of these hubs across the country to help make the United States a magnet for the good, high-tech manufacturing jobs that we need to grow the middle class and keep this country on the cutting edge.

“Together, these hubs will “help build new partnerships in areas that show potential,” the President said. “They’ll help to lift up our communities. They’ll help spark the technology and research that will create the new industries, the good jobs required for folks to punch their ticket into the middle class.” You can check out his complete remarks here.

Cabinet Meeting: On Tuesday, President Obama held his first Cabinet meeting of the new year. “We’ve got a lot to do in 2014. As I’ve said before, this is going to be a year of action,” he said before the meeting. The President said he was pleased that the House and Senate agreed to a budget and put forward a bill to fund the government and is looking forward to working with each side of the aisle to advance economic recovery. Read his full remarks here.

Get ready for the State of the Union: Next Tuesday, January 28th at 9 P.M. ET, President Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union Address. This year there will be more ways to watch the speech and share exclusive graphics. Want to stay updated on the latest State of the Union news? Sign up to get exclusive content before and after the speech and follow @WhiteHouse on Twitter for real-time updates on the State of the Union.

The Miami Heat back at the White House: The President welcomed the Miami Heat back to the White House on Wednesday to congratulate the team on their back-to-back championship titles. Last season, the Heat won a team-record 66 games and beat the San Antonio Spurs in the finals. “The Heat showed us the kind of heart and determination it takes to be a champion,” the President said.

Nomination for the Small Business Administration: On Wednesday the President announced his nominee to lead the Small Business Administration, Maria Contreras-Sweet. The President spoke about her previous experience starting small businesses and her proven track record to helping small businesses succeed.

Vice President Attends Auto Show: While the President was back in Washington, D.C., Vice President Biden spoke at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Thursday. After speaking at the event, he got to tour the exhibit. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop,” the Vice President said.