By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report
During the 1850s, the famed abolitionist, orator, editor, statesman, author, suffragist and publisher, Frederick Douglass usually spent about half of the year traveling extensively and giving lectures.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall.
Antebellum audiences enjoyed patriotic speeches on Independence Day, but the mostly white audience found that instead of the expected platitudes to the founding of the U.S., Douglass delivered a scorching denunciation of the preservation of slavery.
It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
That now-famous address will be recited again on this upcoming Independence Day by Douglass’ great-great grandson and namesake, Frederick Douglass IV.
Much like the man he calls “Granddaddy,” Douglass IV travels throughout America to continue the legacy of his famed ancestor by lecturing about him, depicting his speeches and reenacting key episodes of his ancestor’s life.
The most memorable element in the Rochester speech was Douglass’ use of the second person to illustrate the chasm between your freedoms as whites under the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and slavery. “He comes down as being barbarous, but he ends (the speech) on a note of optimism because he believes that ultimately all these things were going to be righted, maybe not within his lifetime, but he really felt that the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment and other things would lead to equality. To read these things it not only recalls the time in which they were living in which slavery was in America, but the scary part is so much of it is relevant to today.”
“The speech remains contemporary, and in my view, with all respect due to Frederick Douglass, understated,” says radio talk show host Reggie Bryant. “He employs rhetoric and appeals to the conscious and the ethical morality of persons to note what he says. I think he presented them with more credit than they were due. It is clear to me that the context today of (Independence Day) is a vicious and callous and fraudulent exercise when it comes to descendents of those Africans who where kidnapped and brought here against their will and continue too suffer ant the hands of bigots and racist who pretty much dominate the so called government here. There was no reason on that original date, and there is no reason today, for Blacks to celebrate anything. When this so-called declaration was penned, Africans were to face another 100-plus years of slavery.”
Douglass IV travels with his wife of 30 years and co-reenactor, B.J, who similarly portrays Douglass’ wife Anna Murray Douglass. The elder Douglass’ had five children with Douglass IV being the descendent of Frederick Douglass, Jr. The current Douglass’ are founders of The Frederick Douglass Organization, developed to promote education, financial literacy, economic development and bridging the digital divide—all issues that Douglass IV believes his grandfather would embrace.
Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland 1818, but in 1838, at age 20, he escaped to freedom in New York. Eloquent, smart and determined, Douglass gained fame as a speaker, began his own anti-slavery publications and in 1845 published his memoir “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” In later years he became a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln and helped persuade Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He died at age 76 in 1895.
Douglass possessed a commanding presence that was enhanced by his rich and powerful baritone voice. His command of the English language has put him in league with some of the greatest orators of all time. In other words, when Douglass spoke, people listened.
“He wanted to broaden his ability to communicate about the need to end slavery,” explained Douglass IV of his ancestor’s desire to start his own antislavery newspaper, the North Star, after living in exile in England. “He decided when he got back to American he was going to purchase a printing press. So in 1845, a Black man with a printing press was on the cutting edge of technology. That’s how he began broadening his reach. So, if he were here today, he would have a podcast, a website, and DVD’s as communication mechanisms. There are lot of things that need to be done in contemporary America, and I think he would be following his premise.”
Dressing as middle class free Blacks of the 1800’s, the Douglass’ work hard to correct misconceptions such as the belief that all Blacks were slaves and that few Blacks, especially women, were involved in the abolitionist movement. For instance, Douglass IV’s great-great grandmother, Anne, was a free woman who encouraged her husband to eventually buy his freedom.
“Part of our overall mission is to let people know that not everybody during the 1800’s was a slave,” says Douglass IV. “There were those who were born free and there were those who purchased their freedom and became professionals. We want to dispel that kind of mythology so when we go out we dress in finery. My wife dresses in the latest fashions of the 1800’s, which women would have done, and I wear a tuxedo and top hat.”
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey Douglass was a dashing man who was
very conscious of his overall representation to both Blacks and whites. For example, although photography was in its infancy during the height of Douglass fame, he was aware of the influence of photos and was cautious to never smile in any pictures of himself because he did not want his likeness abused.
“He was very conscious of the presentation of Black folks was, in that day it was generally buffooness, and so he did not smile because he did not want his image misused in anyway. He felt that if he did smile than someone could put captions or in some way make a joke out of it,” said Douglass IV, a professional photographer, as well.
“This was really at the beginning of the use of photography. He had a printing press, but he was also very conscious of the image, so he allowed his photograph to be taken and distributed so that Black people an image of a Black person that was positive in the home. He was right in on it and he saw the power of it and he used it effectively. ”
Today, Douglass’ role as the father of the Civil Rights Movement is sadly overlooked said Bryant. “I applaud and share with my audiences the content of Fredrick Douglass’ speech and wish only that he were alive today to revise and to perhaps make even more strident the content in his magnificent ability for oration.”
Likewise, Douglass IV recalled an incident “when a young man asked him what he could do to help change society. (Douglass) responded with three words: ‘Agitate, agitate, agitate.'”