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Frederick Douglass: Former slave was leading Black voice in Abolitionist movement
Created on Friday, 08 February 2013 10:50 Last Updated on Friday, 08 February 2013 10:50 Published on Saturday, 09 February 2013 07:00 Written by Courier Newsroom Hits: 1417
At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, Frederick Douglass was the keynote speaker for the dedication service on April 14, 1876. In his speech, Douglass spoke frankly about Lincoln, noting what he perceived as both the positive and negative attributes of the late President. He called Lincoln “the White man’s president” and cited his tardiness in joining the cause of emancipation. He noted that Lincoln initially opposed the expansion of slavery but did not support its elimination. But Douglass also asked, “Can any Colored man, or any White man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?” At this speech he also said: “Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his White fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery…”
In his last autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass referred to Lincoln as America’s “greatest President.”
Frederick Douglass was born a slave as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, around Feb. 1818, not really knowing when he was born, and died Feb. 20, 1895. He was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Many Northerners also found it hard to believe that such a great orator had been a slave.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies, one describing his experiences in slavery, a second which became influential in its support for abolition. and two covering events through and after the Civil War.
After the Civil War, Douglass remained active in the United States’ struggle to reach its potential as a “land of the free.” Douglass actively supported women’s suffrage. Without his approval, he became the first African-American nominated for Vice President of the United States as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull on the impracticable and small Equal Rights Party ticket. Douglass held multiple public offices.
Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether Black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Anna Murray Douglass, a free Black woman, was his wife for 44 years. Once Douglass had arrived in the North after his escape from slavery which she helped orchestrate he sent for her to follow him to New York; she arrived with the necessary basics for them to set up a home. They were married on Sept. 15, 1838, by a Black Presbyterian minister eleven days after his arrival in New York. At first, they adopted Johnson as their married name but later changed it to Douglass.
The couple settled in New Bedford, Mass. He joined several organizations, including a Black church and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal “The Liberator.” In 1841 he first heard Garrison speak at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. At one of these meetings, Douglass was unexpectedly invited to speak.
After he told his story, he was encouraged to become an anti-slavery lecturer. Douglass was inspired by Garrison and later stated that “no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [of the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass and wrote of him in The Liberator. Several days later, Douglass delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. Then 23 years old, Douglass conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his rough life as a slave.
In 1843, Douglass participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project, a six-month tour of meeting halls throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States. During this tour, he was frequently accosted, and at a lecture in Pendleton, Ind., was chased and beaten by an angry mob before being rescued by a local Quaker family. His hand was broken in the attack; it healed improperly and bothered him for the rest of his life.
He left the country to speak in Ireland and England for two years. After returning to the U.S., Douglass produced some abolitionist newspapers: “The North Star,” “Frederick Douglass Weekly,” “Frederick Douglas’ Paper,” “Douglass’ Monthly” and “New National Era.” The motto of The North Star was “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The abolitionist newspapers were mainly funded by supporters in England.
Douglass stood up to speak in favor of women’s right to vote.
In 1848, Douglass was the only African-American to attend the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution asking for women’s suffrage. Many of those present opposed the idea, Douglass stood and spoke eloquently in favor; he said that he could not accept the right to vote as a Black man if women could not also claim that right. He suggested that the world would be a better place if women were involved in the political sphere.
“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
Douglass’ powerful words rang true with enough attendees that the resolution passed.
He later changed his beliefs on the Constitution to stating that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document. This reversed his earlier agreement with William Lloyd Garrison that it was pro-slavery. Garrison had publicly expressed his opinion by burning copies of the document. Further contributing to their growing separation, Garrison was worried that the North Star competed with his own National Anti-Slavery Standard and Marius Robinson’s Anti-Slavery Bugle. Douglass’ change of position on the Constitution was one of the most notable incidents of the division in the abolitionist movement after the publication of Spooner’s book The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1846. This shift in opinion, and other political differences, created a rift between Douglass and Garrison. Douglass further angered Garrison by saying that the Constitution could and should be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered an address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, which eventually became known as “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” It was a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the United States in general and the Christian church in particular.
Douglass believed that education was the key for African-Americans to improve their lives. For this reason, he was an early advocate for desegregation of schools. In the 1850s, he was especially outspoken in New York. The facilities and instruction for African-American children were vastly inferior. Douglass criticized the situation and called for court action to open all schools to all children. He stated that inclusion within the educational system was a more pressing need for African-Americans than political issues such as suffrage.
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous Black men in the country, known for his orations on the condition of the Black race and on other issues such as women’s rights. His eloquence gathered crowds at every location. His reception by leaders in England and Ireland added to his stature.
Douglass and the abolitionists argued that because the aim of the Civil War was to end slavery, African-Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass publicized this view in his newspapers and several speeches. Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of Black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of Black suffrage.
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