This week, Frederick Douglass.
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As we glided giddily or hastily through 14 February, the familiar debate about the arbitrariness of St. Valentine’s Day brimmed to the surface once again. 14 February was also the date on which Frederick Douglass celebrated his birthday, but he had no doubt that it was arbitrary. He had no idea when he was born. Indeed, when Douglass was born in a shack on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland in 1818, he was no man at all in the eyes of the law, but the property of another—a slave.
Photo: Frederick Douglass (public domain)
The horrors of American chattel slavery are well known, but poorly understood. It is one of those tortures so heart-wrenching as to be incomprehensible but through experience. Douglass, who endured twenty-one years of enslavement, described the lack of basic freedoms. The raw pain of a knotted whip as it cut into his flesh over and over for the meagrest infraction. The scalding heat of the branding iron on his cheek. The heartbreak of being forcibly separated from his mother and grandmother as a small child. We grimace, but we will never understand.
For Douglass, though, none of these were the chief injustices of slavery. It was slaveowners’ deliberate withholding of education from three million Americans and American Christianity’s silence that he saw as the chief atrocity. If slaves had access to education, he held that slavery could not exist. He believed that books were the only effective weapon in this particular uprising, and so it proved for him. The sympathetic wife of one of his masters taught him the alphabet, and he read everything he could get his hands on. Soon, he dreamed of freedom.
Photo: US postage stamp of 1973 (public domain)
He met and quickly fell in love with a free black woman called Anna Murray, who helped him in his escape to the north. The pair would be married for forty-four years until her eventual death, having five children together. The story of his escape is harrowing and worth hearing, but not as significant as his subsequent career. Douglass became one of the finest writers and orators in America, and a steadfast supporter of abolition and women’s suffrage. He fought for his beliefs from the pulpit as a minister and in his own publications, but financial support was hard to come by for a free black abolitionist in antebellum America.
This pulled Douglass across the Atlantic, where the slave trade was long since abolished and abolitionist sentiment was considerable. He toured Ireland and Britain, filling chapels with rapturously receptive audiences. In London, he met with many prominent British abolitionists, including Thomas Clarkson who had previously persuaded Parliament to abolish slavery in the colonies. Such was his popularity that supporters raised the funds to buy him his freedom from his legal owner, Thomas Auld. He found himself “regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.”
Photo: Frederick Douglass plaque in London by anterotesis (creative commons)
He delivered his famous London Reception Speech at Finsbury Chapel at the invitation of Alexander Fletcher, a popular Scottish abolitionist preacher and founder of the chapel. It is difficult to do it justice here. It outstrips the Emancipation Proclamation in every way.
I have on my back the marks of the lash; I have four sisters and one brother now under the galling chain. I feel it my duty to cry aloud and spare not. I am not averse to having the good opinion of my fellow-creatures. I am not averse to being kindly regarded by all men; but I am bound, even at the hazard of making a large class of religionists in this country hate me, oppose me, and malign me as they have done—I am bound by the prayers, and tears, and entreaties of three millions of kneeling bondsmen, to have no compromise with men who are in any shape or form connected with the slaveholders of America. I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it.
In this speech and others like it, he roused enough support to return to America with the wind at his back and coffers full to fight the evil of slavery. After the Civil War, this support continued as he pushed for equality and suffrage for all Americans. He became more heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement towards the end of his life, and married a white suffragette after Anna Murray’s death, despite animosity from her family.
Photo: The grave of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York via Wikimedia Creative Commons
During his time in London, Douglass lived with George Thompson, a British antislavery lecturer who would later follow him to the United States to aid in his cause. The site where they lived together in South Kensington is marked with one of Ewart’s ubiquitous blue plaques. Hidden around a corner from the main road, it symbolises the tireless work of Frederick Douglass towards equal education for all children, and reminds us that his fight continues.