As we come to the end of February, Black History Month, I would like to write today about a hero of mine from the past, Frederick Douglass. Much of what we know about Douglass comes from his own words found in the many books he wrote during his lifetime. From his first autobiography we learn that he began traveling in 1841 for the Anti-Slavery Society, and by 1845 he had become well known for the speeches he made at abolitionist rallies where he told his story of growing up in slavery. But in his performances he was so intelligent and spoke so articulately that many people doubted he had ever actually been a slave. He wrote the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in part to “prove” his identity as well as to condemn the practice of slavery to a wide audience. His book became probably the best selling of all the fugitive slave narratives, selling 5000 copies just in its first four months in print. Six more editions were published between 1845 and 1849. Douglass also published two later versions of his autobiography: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
Because he was such an important historical figure people often forget that even after his escape from enslavement in 1838 Frederick Douglass was not a free man. He was a fugitive slave traveling and speaking for the anti-slavery movement, and these speaking tours—like his 1843 trip to Indiana—were not always met with peace and love:
“At our first meeting,” Douglass wrote of his stop in Richmond, “we were mobbed, and some of us got our good clothes spoiled by evil-smelling eggs.’’
There is a historical marker near Pendleton, Indiana commemorating this visit entitled “Abolitionists Mobbed.”
In 1845, the same year his autobiography came out, Douglass was forced to leave the United States. The final negotiations for his freedom took place during 1846, and in December of that year he was freed.
Douglass left the U.S. for England to avoid being recaptured as a fugitive slave. He toured England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, speaking publicly throughout. In Ireland, Douglass was horrified at the poverty he found which was worse than anything he had ever experienced. He realized that blacks weren’t the only people struggling to be free. One million Irish died that year of starvation following the failure of the potato crop, and Douglass, joined with other activists there traveled from town to town, demanding immediate repeal of the corn laws (or grain tariffs), so desperate people could buy cheap food.
Perhaps some of the best-known words spoken by Douglass come from his “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York, in 1857.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Frederick Douglass worked for women’s freedom as well. His speech at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 helped turn the tide for the adoption of the amendment giving women the right to vote:
“…seeing that the male government of the world have failed, it can do no harm to try the experiment of a government by man and woman united…I have never yet been able to find one consideration, one argument, or suggestion in favor of man’s right to participate in civil government which did not equally apply to the right of woman…”
So at the close of this year’s Black History month I pay tribute to a great American who cared about not just the rights of his fellow African-Americans but the rights of all struggling men and women all over the world.
Thank you, Frederick Douglass!
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