‘Heart-wrenchingly relevant’: Frederick Douglass’ Independence Day speech celebrated

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  • A banner photograph of Frederick Douglass overlooks a communal reading of his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” at Historic Northampton on Saturday. Northampton City Council Vice President Gina-Louise Sciarra offers her remarks at the microphone before the start of the reading. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Clare Overlander of Florence reads a portion of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" during a communal reading of the 1852 speech at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. The speech is broken into 53 parts and some of the 100 or so people attending the event stood in line twice to get a second turn to read from the document. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rose Sackey-Milligan, right, former senior program officer for Mass Humanities, talks to state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa prior to a communal reading of Frederick Douglass' 1852 speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. At the microphone is Brian Boyles, executive director of Mass Humanities, which sponsored the event. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton City Council Vice President Gina-Louise Sciarra reads a portion of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" during a communal reading of the 1852 speech at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. The speech is broken into 53 parts for its public reading. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Zahra Caldwell of Holyoke reads a portion of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" during a communal reading of the 1852 speech at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. The speech is broken into 53 parts for its public reading. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa reads a portion of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" during a communal reading of the 1852 speech at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. The speech is broken into 53 parts for its public reading. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rose Sackey-Milligan, former senior program officer for Mass Humanities, welcomes about 100 people to a communal reading of Frederick Douglass' 1852 speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • DeRoy Caldwell of Holyoke talks about the relevance of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" before a communal reading of the 1852 speech at Historic Northampton on Saturday, July 6, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tzivia Gover of Florence reads a portion of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” during a communal reading of the 1852 speech at Historic Northampton on Saturday. Rose Sackey-Milligan, former senior program officer for Mass Humanities, which sponsors the readings, follows along at right. Below, Clare Overlander of Florence reads. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2019 7:20:25 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On July 5, 1852, former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was invited to speak at an event hosted by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York.

Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” was a fiery rebuke of slavery in antebellum America. More than a century and a half later, the oration — an iconic moment in American political discourse — was re-created through the voices of more than 50 people gathered Saturday morning on the lawn of Historic Northampton.

“The distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable,” Douglass said in the speech 166 years ago. “And the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight.”

For most of his adult life, Douglass traveled across the country, speaking to crowds and printing articles in his own abolitionist newspaper, “North Star.” In his journeys, Douglass even made stops in Florence, regularly lecturing to the town’s abolitionist community.

“This is an abolitionist, historic spot,” said Brian Boyles, executive director of Mass Humanities, which sponsored the event. “When you look at the things Douglass says about visiting Florence, you see a lot of things that resonate to you today when you think about this community.”

Attendees took turns reading Douglass’ speech split into 53 sections — with each person coming up to the microphone bringing a unique energy and cadence to the rhetoric. Copies of the speech were printed on a handout, and nonparticipants listened intently from folding chairs set up around the speakers.

“We’re here to remember the importance of Douglass’ speech today,” said Northampton City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra at the beginning of the reading. “And how his message is really, at this moment in time, disturbingly and heart-wrenchingly relevant.”

The speech begins with Douglass praising the bravery of America’s Founders in rebelling against the British, but his discussion soon shifts to what he called the “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy” of America’s professed values in the face of the domestic slave trade.

For white Americans, the Fourth of July is a celebration of political freedom, Douglass said. But to enslaved people, he said, the holiday was “a sham … a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Rose Sackey-Milligan, former senior program officer for Mass Humanities,  said the speech constantly reminded her of the legacy of “the consciousness that produced the enslavement of African people.”

People in America still take part in that legacy today, she said, but speeches like Douglass’ provide an opportunity to reflect on race in America.

“Here we are, living a part of this rancorous, this pernicious legacy. We’re all swimming — affected by it,” she said.

In an interview after the reading, Sackey-Milligan said the event was a way for people of all backgrounds to come together as a group over the issue.

Even further, she said, communal readings allow for the contents of Douglass’ speech to reach more people. 

“I didn’t feel less optimistic — I felt truth — that [Douglass] was being truthful, that he was naming the truth about what is,” Sackey-Milligan said.

Leeds resident Kristen Elde said she came to the event with her 6-year-old son because she wanted to expose him to discussion of issues of race and racism. Elde said she has been feeling less patriotic these days, mostly due to “displays of patriotism” that made her feel “sick.”

“I wasn’t feeling the Fourth at all, but I could feel this,” she said.

Zahra Caldwell and DeRoy Gordon, both Holyoke residents and professors at Westfield State University, said before the reading that they saw similarities between the mid-19th century and the political climate of today.

“It’s the same moment we’re having,” Caldwell said, comparing Douglass’ speech with President Donald Trump’s July Fourth military showcase on the National Mall. “We got people in detention camps; black people are still unequal. There are all these contradictions, but there’s no recognition. But Douglass doesn’t do that. He [just] lays it out.”

“It’s a very direct, a very open, very honest speech,” Gordon said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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