Thursday, February 23, 2017

Frederick Douglass: Getting Recognized More and More

This Black History Month article is about Frederick Douglass, the African-American man who now seems to be getting recognized more and more—partly because of DJT’s somewhat puzzling comment to that effect on Feb. 1.
Last Thursday I flew to Washington, D.C., where son Keith picked me up. At my request we went straight from the airport to the Frederick Douglass Historic Site in southeast D.C. It was a wonderful visit of the Cedar Hill residence that Douglass purchased in 1877 and lived in until his death in 1895.
Douglass was able to purchase the splendid house in Anacostia because of his appointment as Federal Marshal of Washington, D.C. Soon after President Hayes’s inauguration in March 1877, he named Douglass to that position, partly in appreciation for his support during the heated presidential campaign of 1876.
Here is a picture I took of his spacious Cedar Hill home: 

Statue of Douglass in Visitors Center
It is not certain that Douglass was born in February, but his birthday was celebrated at the Historic Site this week on Monday. Most sources now say he was born in 1818, although Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 biography of Douglass gives his birth year as 1817. There were not good historical records kept on slaves—and Douglass’s mother was a slave in Maryland at the time of his birth.
When he was about twenty years old, in 1838 Douglass escaped from slavery, fleeing to New York. That same year he married Anna Murray, who became the mother of his five children and was his wife until her death in 1882.
In 1841 Douglass became widely known as a public speaker, delivering speeches for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Seven years later, he attended the first women’s rights convention and also became an advocate of suffrage for women.
Then in 1858 John Brown stayed in the Douglass home (in Rochester, N.Y.) for a month, but Douglass never condoned Brown’s plan for the Harpers Ferry attack. He did, however, later recruit Black soldiers to fight for the Union. He also served as an adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War.
(This link to Douglass’s timeline gives much more historical information.)
Douglass died in his Cedar Ridge home on Feb. 20, 1895. Since he had been a lifelong Methodist, his elaborate funeral was held at a large AME Church in D.C.
In the appendix of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), the first of his three autobiographies, Douglass explained what he had written about religion in his book:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. 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 libels.
Frederick Douglass was unquestionably a great man. I am glad his life and work, including this historic criticism of “slaveholding religion,” is now “getting recognized more and more.” 


  1. From St. Louis, Thinking Friend Keith Herron shares the following comments:

    "Lovely. I should think we should give President Trump a pass on being uninformed about Douglass. I suspect many citizens recognize him by name but not by his life.

    "On Douglass’ anti-slavery work, it’s not at all odd he would turn his attention to other areas of injustice. MLK Jr did this in widening his messages to include poverty and the war in SE Asia.

    "In our own time, the seeds of freedom are being sown in many areas and it’s not difficult to widen one’s own core concerns once one begins to come to clarity on a single injustice. After that, one can see more clearly on other fronts."

    1. Thanks much for reading and responding, Keith.

      I was surprised to learn how Douglass worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women's rights from 1848 and spoke at a women's rally the day he died in 1895. In his Cedar Hill home, he had a framed picture of Stanton hanging on the wall in his study.

      Certainly I agree that working against injustice in one area often leads people to work also for freedom and justice in other areas -- but that being the case I continue to be puzzled at how much resistance there is in the African-American community toward LGBTQ rights.

    2. I am currently listening to One Nation Under God by Kevin M Kruse. I am listening to how people fought to link God and government using the Declaration of Independence (endowed by their Creator) as support, and noticed that all men are created equal, but did not see racism as a problem. I was struck by the irony, but now that I am writing this, it strikes me that the motivation for putting God in government was not really justice. So my whole point about seeking justice does not necessarily make one recognize all injustices is unsupported. Too bad because I struggle with the seeming disconnect between some minorities failing to recognize others pursuing rights.

      Friday night I watched Bill Maher who had Milo Yiannopoulos on his show. Milo, who is a proud homosexual, stated trans genders are abnormal and held his position even when it was pointed out that used to be and still is what homosexuals are fighting. At least I can say it is not just African-Americans. Of course, I often have to meditate on what the log is in my eye. Reading and sometimes replying to this blog helps.

    3. Dennis, thanks for posting your comments; it was good to hear from you again.

      Of course there is opposition to what is often called "gay rights" from many different sectors in society. But I was referring to the fact that according to the PEW Research Center in 2016 57% of whites approved of same-sex marriage but only 42% of blacks did. In addition, in spite of a great majority of blacks being Democrats, overall, 70% of Democrats approved. It is because of stats such as these, and other things I have heard and read, that it seems to me that there is "much resistance" toward gay rights in the African-American community.

      And I still think that it often is, and should be, the case that concern about injustice in one arena should lead to working for justice in other arenas also.

  2. Local Thinking Friend Don Pepper wrote,

    "In reading the F. Douglas quote. . . My stream of conscious yielded the song
    'The American Jesus' as performed by the rock group 'Bad Religion.'"

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Don. I didn't know / hadn't ever heard that song (as far as I know), but I found it on YouTube and thought it quite interesting. For those of you who might be interested, here is the link:

  3. It has been an exceptionally good month for gaining insights into the African-American experience and the important contribution that complex experience makes to create the U.S. as it is, a paradox of strengths and weaknesses, good and bad. There have been several shows highlighting the value of the new African-America museum in D.C. (PBS special, Charlie Rose), excellent reviews of the just released documentary of James Baldwin, “I am Not Your Negro”) and several outstanding films being considered for Sunday’s Academy Awards (especially the film version of August Wilson’s Fences, along with Moonlighting and Hidden Figures)
    To these I can now add your appreciation of Frederick Douglas. There have been terrible experiences in our Christian past and in our American past. Today, we are in a position to take stock, make amends, and try humbly to go forward in love and with justice. A symbolic depiction of this opportunity has flashed before us at the dedication of the new African-American museum on the mall , the crowd applauding and weeping at the same time, on seeing and hearing Michelle Obama testify to the deep feelings she experiences each morning, waking up in the White House, a “house built by slaves.”

  4. I suspect that much of the basis for one minority disrespecting another minority is the result of the experience of "divide and conquer." The classic American example is the Southern elite's strategy of dividing the working class into "white trash" and "niggers." Neither got much out of the economy, but the elite made sure one side got a little more, and was kept in constant fear that the other would want more. As long as white trash tantrums were aimed at colored victims, all was well in the Southern elite. If things got too far out of hand, and there was no way to place the blame on the victims, then a token white trash or two could be singled out for prosecution. Compare the fate of Dylan Roof with that of any number of police officers caught behaving horribly on video the last few years. In such a world, it must be very difficult for blacks to avoid at times the temptations to look down on anyone who happens to appear to rank even lower than a black in the American pecking order, be they native American, LBGTQ, Jewish, Muslim or other. People (not just blacks) have a strong itch to find someone, somewhere, to look down on. I do not think we are born that way, but it sure is an easy disease to catch, with plenty of places to catch it.

    The Apostle Paul laid down a marker that puts us all to shame, even after all these years. In Galatians 3:28 her wrote "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." How many of us can claim we have lived up to that challenge? We can hardly judge, seeing our own failings. We can only nudge each other, and ourselves, closer to the ideal. As an ideal, this is powerful medicine. As a judgment, well, I think it leaves all of us (not just half of Trump's supporters) in a basket of deplorables. This world runs on divide and conquer. It poisons us all with its hate. If Paul were writing to Americans today, he mighty rephrase it to say something like "There is neither black or white, straight or LGBTQ, male and female (Will we ever run out of glass ceilings?); for all are one in Christ." Then again, after the recent threats to Jewish centers and devastation in a Saint Louis Jewish cemetery, his original statement from 2,000 years ago still hangs over us all. As, I suspect, will the legacy of Fredrick Douglass hang over future eons to come. The amazing thing is that anyone ever makes it to the mountaintop to tell us what they see.

  5. Thanks Leroy for always good and useful information. Being a student at Union Theological Seminary in VA 3 years in the 60s, i have seen and experienced the suffering of Black people in the South. There were many courageous leaders like Frederick Douglass and others who have made great progress, but the overwhelming oppressions against African Americans are far from over. We all need to work hard for the day of Shalom.