I learned recently that there is a new book out by David Blight about Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and since the 4th of July is coming up and I look forward to our local traditions of fireworks and picnics, I am also reminded of a tradition from out east where local speakers take to the stage to re-enact Douglass’ most famous speech.
Douglass, an African-American who had escaped from slavery in Maryland, was a great orator who traveled the country speaking about freedom, independence and abolishing slavery in the United States. In 1852, slavery was still legal in large parts of the United States and Douglass, who was now living in New York State when he wasn’t traveling to speak throughout the rest of the northern states, was asked to address the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in honor of Independence Day. In his speech Douglass said that the American Independence celebration did not carry the same meaning for all peoples of this nation. For many African-Americans freedom from slavery would not come for another decade and with the fighting of a great Civil War.
As some people say, ‘freedom isn’t free’ and in his speech Douglass recognized the courage and the cost it took in 1776 for the founders to choose freedom for their country. He congratulated those Americans on their hard-won independence, “The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history-the very ringbolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.” But Douglass said, too, that it would take continual struggle and cost before all Americans found true freedom through equality.
Frederick Douglass delivered his speeches during a very different time. Before the televisions and phones and computers that capture our attention today, live performances like speeches drew huge crowds and many ideas and movements were spread that way. A friend of mine from Massachusetts told me that today, one way New Englanders celebrate Independence Day is to hold gatherings in the many parks across the region and listen to re-enactors deliver public readings of Douglass’ great 4th of July speech. These readings are then followed by community discussions much like they were in the mid-19th century.
Here in Indiana many people travel to the lake to watch fireworks reflecting off the waters. Others celebrate in one of our great city parks, at the ball diamond, or with personal firecrackers in their own backyard. This year the sixth annual Fort Wayne Philharmonic Patriotic Pops at Parkview Field will take place on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, at 8:30 p.m. with fireworks accompanying the finale. And the 4th of July Fireworks will be downtown at 10 PM on Thursday. The 4th of July is a relaxing and festive day when we dress in our red, white and blue and, enjoy a day off work in the summer weather like the rest of our fellow citizens.
Frederick Douglass’ words inspire me and make me appreciate what I have as an American. This year I’ll be celebrating with a little time off, a hopefully sunny day, and some exciting fireworks come the night. Happy Independence Day!
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