Wednesday, 20 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (8): Frederick Douglass, 20 February

Frederick Douglass, ex-slave who became a leading abolitionist

Patrick Comerford

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), who was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, ca February 1818, 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 oratory and writings, and was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

He is honoured with a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the US today (20 February).

Frederick Douglass stood as a living challenge to the claims by the slaveholders that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. He wrote several autobiographies describing his experiences as a slave, and these became influential in the campaign for abolition.

He was the son of a field hand and, reportedly, her white master. He was first sold at the age of six. He learned to read and write over the next 10 years, until he was apprenticed as a caulker for a shipbuilder in Baltimore. Although he was able to rent out his own time and earn some money, he yearned for his true freedom.

In 1835, Douglass was hired out by his master to William Freeland, a farmer living in Talbot County, Maryland. He secretly organised a Sunday school, where he taught other slaves to read: “I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free coloured man ... I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women. I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul.”

Then in 1838 he borrowed forged papers and caught a train to Philadelphia. From there he made his way to New York and on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He began attending lectures at the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was formed in 1833. Most of the society’s leaders were white, and their outlook towards black people was often paternalistic, while black abolitionists struggled to have their voices heard.

In New Bedford, Douglass became disappointed at the segregation and condescending manner he found in the northern Methodist churches. He joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and, in 1839, became a licensed preacher.

Later, as an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, he joined the battle against the American Colonisation Society and the attempt by whites to force blacks to move to Africa. Although Douglass wrote that he looked back at his time in the AME Zion Church with great joy, he did not remain with them for more than a few years, saying that “it consented to the same spirit which held my brethren in chains.”

In March 1839, some of Douglass’s anti-colonisation statements were published in the Liberator, a prominent antislavery newspaper. His writings brought him to the attention of abolitionist leaders, and, after attending an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island in 1841.

Douglass became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a colleague of William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black or white, male or female, Native American or recent immigrant, saying: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

Douglass’s friends and mentors feared that the publicity would draw the attention of his former owner, Hugh Auld, who might try to get his “property” back. They encouraged Douglass to tour Ireland, as many former slaves had done. He set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool on 16 August 1845, and arrived in Ireland as the tragedy of the Potato Famine was unfolding.

He spent two years in Ireland and Britain, where he gave many lectures in churches and chapels. His draw was such that some facilities were “crowded to suffocation.” An example was his hugely popular London Reception Speech, which Douglass delivered at Alexander Fletcher’s Finsbury Chapel in May 1846. Douglass remarked that in England he was treated not “as a colour, but as a man.”

In Ireland, he also met and befriended Daniel O’Connell, who was to prove to be one of his great inspirations.

During this trip, Douglass became legally free when British supporters and sympathisers led by Ellen Richardson of Newcastle upon Tyne raised the money needed to purchase his freedom from his American owner. Many of these people urged Douglass to remain in England to be truly free of the fear of chains, but with three million black people still in slavery in the US, he left England in spring of 1847.

Douglass broke from his abolitionist mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, in 1847. While Garrison was radical in his views, Douglass had grown more pragmatic. Although he had initially agreed with Garrison that the US Constitution was a pro-slavery document, he changed his views, believing that the Constitution could be used to bring about emancipation.

That same year, Douglass began publishing his own newspaper, the North Star, which he continued to publish until 1851. He also wrote three autobiographies, and became a champion of women’s rights. He took part in the 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York.

On 5 July 1852, Douglass delivered his famous speech: “What to the Slave is your Fourth of July?” at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held in Rochester, New York, Douglass’s home at the time. In his scathing address, which is considered “perhaps the greatest antislavery oration ever given,” Douglass railed against the institution of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the hypocritical American Christianity that supported such oppression.

During the Civil War, he was an active recruiter for the Massachusetts 54th regiment for “coloured soldiers,” and twice met Abraham Lincoln to discuss the unequal treatment of black soldiers and contingency plans for slaves in case the war was lost.

After the Civil War, Douglass remained active in politics and campaigns. He actively supported women’s suffrage, became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the US as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull and held many public offices.

In 1870, Douglass began publishing the New National Era in the hope that it would hold the US to its post-Civil War commitment of equality. Increasingly, however, he was forced to work behind the lines of segregation, as a black leadership formed to pressure the new President, Ulysses Grant.

After his Rochester home was destroyed in an arson attack, he moved to Washington, where he held several prominent positions first as president of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company, and then in the government of the District of Columbia. When the New National Era folded, Doulgass lost $10,000. When Rutherford B. Hayes won the contested presidential election, Douglass took the job of Marshall of DC, largely for the job security.

Later he revisited Ireland in 1886, when spoke for Irish Home Rule and supported Charles Stewart Parnell.

In 1889, he became the US consul general in Haiti, but resigned after a year after being accused of being too sympathetic to Haitian interests.

Douglass, along with others in the abolitionist movement and the AME Church, believed that the US was the true home of black Americans. In 1892, he attended Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s nationally convened conference in Indianapolis, where he vociferously opposed the Back to Africa Movement. He also opposed the Exodus to Kansas, supported by Sojourner Truth. He hated to see his people as “refugees.”

He died on 20 February 1895. His funeral was held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, where thousands passed by his coffin paying tribute. He was buried in the Douglass family plot of Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, where he had lived for 25 years.

Before the 19th century was over, Douglass was known internationally as an outspoken antislavery writer, publisher, and lecturer – the lion of black America.

Frederick Douglass in his own words:

“We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the Gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion go hand in hand.”

– Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)

On his welcome in Ireland:

“Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people – I reach the hotel – I enter the same door – I am shown into the same parlour – I dine at the same table – and no one is offended... I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don't allow niggers in here!’”– from My Bondage and My Freedom.

In an appendix to his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845), Douglass clarified that he was not opposed to all religion, but only the Christianity of a slave-holding America: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libel...”

The Collect:

Almighty God, whose truth makes us free: We bless your Name for the witness of Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned and reasonable speech moved the hearts of a president and a people to a deeper obedience to Christ. Strengthen us also to be outspoken on behalf of those in captivity and tribulation, continuing in the Word of Jesus Christ our Liberator; who with you and the Holy Spirit dwells in glory everlasting. Amen.


Isaiah 32: 11-18; Psalm 85: 7-13; Hebrews 2: 10-18; John 8: 30-32.

Tomorrow (21 February): Peter Damian.

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