Articles From the July 1995 Unification News


Frederick Douglass: A Voice for God's Wrath in America

by Harry Phillips-Sterling, VA

The life of Frederick Douglass is the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC which runs through Nov. 19 this year. The exhibit, "Majestic in His Wrath: The Life of Frederick Douglass" in the 100th year since Douglass died, will inspired viewers to reconsider this important American's contribution to the abolition of slavery and the early fight for civil rights. His life truly was an incredible one, as the National Portrait Gallery Director Alan Fern says: "Here is a man who beat all the odds, who learned to read and write as a slave, a gifted man of enormous talents who was a riveting orator, great writer, and politician in the best sense of the word."

The exhibit consists of a number of oil portraits, photographs, letters, prints, sculpture and other materials arranged chronologically to tell the story of Douglass' life. Frederick Bailey (he took the name Douglass for himself later) was born sometime in February 1818 in Talbot County on the eastern shore of Maryland; his mother was a slave.

After working for some years both on plantations on the eastern shore and in the city of Baltimore as a slave, Douglass decided to escape. With the help of a free-black woman, Anna Murray, he dressed as a sailor, obtained fake documents, and took a train to New York, where he married Anna. Douglass and his wife then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he worked at various odd jobs and became active in a local African-American church. At several public meetings, he spoke out against the evils of slavery and gained the notice of other New England abolitionists.

The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society recruited Douglass to the abolitionist lecture circuit, which led him to write the first version of his autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" in 1845. In it, he explained his life as a slave to argue for the abolition of slavery. The volume sold 30,000 copies in five years. An early edition is included in the exhibit.

Due to his gaining notoriety, the risk of being captured as an escaped slave grew. Douglass left the U.S. in 1845 for an extended trip to the British Isles, where he lectured extensively about American slavery. Friends he made there agreed to raise the money to purchase his freedom and one of the poignant pieces in the exhibit is the letter agreeing to the purchase of his freedom from his master.

On his return to the U.S., he embarked on a career as an editor and publisher of an antislavery newspaper, the "North Star," working from his new home in Rochester, New York. As the Civil War began in 1861, Douglass worked to make sure that the purpose of the war would be to eliminate slavery. After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass turned to helping recruit black troops for the Union Army. He met with Lincoln twice during the war and, although Douglass was very upset with the treatment of black soldiers by the Union Army, Lincoln kept him as a great admirer. Consequently, Douglass was devastated by the president's assassination.

After the war, Douglass turned his attention to gaining suffrage for African-Americans, and continued to view the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, as the best hope for black Americans. As he became more involved in politics, Douglass left his home in Rochester and moved to Washington, DC. His loyalty to the party was repaid with appointment first as Marshal for the District of Columbia, later as Recorder of Deeds, and in 1889 as Minister to Haiti. IN 1884, a year and a half after his first wife died, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman, causing a good deal of controversy for both the black and white communities. The marriage was a happy one.

Much of Douglass' writing and speaking was a fierce and direct attack on the institution of slavery and, after Emancipation, the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the supposedly free society. One of his most brutal critiques of American society was given in a speech he gave in Rochester, July 5, 1852. Its title was "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" He declined to speak on the Fourth because he felt that as a black man, he had no reason to celebrate.

On the other hand, he was also able to appreciate progress being made in the society. Jan. 1, 1963, the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Douglass declared it a "day for poetry and song." And in 1870 with the passing of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing civil rights to all men, he said to a group: "I appear before you tonight for the first time in a more elevated position of an American citizen."

Although Douglass had been disappointed by Christianity, especially in the South, which he felt should have motivated the slaveholders to change their ways, he nevertheless believed strongly in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he worked tirelessly to see more fully realized for all Americans. In 1869 he wrote: "It is true that we are no longer slaves, but it is equally true that we are not yet quite free. We have been turned out of the house of bondage, but we have not yet been fully admitted to the glorious temple of American liberty. We are still in a transition state and the future is shrouded in doubt and danger." That temple of American liberty remains uncompleted, but the life of Frederick Douglass is one of its strong pillars.


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