February 20, 2014

Death of Douglass: We still live

Orator, statesman, reformer, editor, and author Frederick Douglass died unexpectedly on February 20, 1895 at his home in Washington, D.C. called Cedar Hill. He was about 77 or 78 years old. A former slave, he secretly learned how to read, but remained headstrong and independent — qualities which his enslaver attempted to break him of. After one particular whipping, a teenaged Douglass fought back. He was never beaten again.

After escaping from enslavement (with the help of several, including David Ruggles), Douglass made his way north and met with his free black wife. Now on free land, Douglass reflected, "I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life." He became an outspoken advocate for abolition and was recognized as one of the most powerful speakers of the day. He wrote his life story in three autobiographies, the last of which was revised and reissued only three years before his death. In that book, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, reiterated his history of enslavement and his escape to freedom but also explained his more recent life story. For example, years after the Civil War, he was granted a government post, U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, making him the first African American to receive a federal post that required approval from the Senate.

In those years, however, many black Americans felt a disconnect with Douglass, who had entered a life of privilege that some believed did not reflect the black American experience. Further, he had married a white woman after the death of his first wife, a decision that met with disapproval even from his loving family. He had shifted his interest to women's rights and women's suffrage (the day of his death, he attended a rally for the cause alongside Susan B. Anthony). Douglass did not agree. He knew that more work was necessary, even after Emancipation - and, more than that, it was not white people who would continue the progress of black people, but black people themselves. As he wrote in his final autobiography:

Taking all the circumstances into consideration, the colored people have no reason to despair. We still live, and while there is life there is hope. The fact that we have endured wrongs and hardships which would have destroyed any other race, and have increased in numbers and public consideration, ought to strengthen our faith in ourselves and our future. Let us, then, wherever we are, whether at the North or at the South, resolutely struggle on in the belief that there is a better day coming, and that we, by patience, industry, uprightness, and economy may hasten that better day. I will not listen, myself, and I would not have you listen to the nonsense, that no people can succeed in life among a people by whom they nave been despised and oppressed...
Greatness does not come to any people on flowers beds of ease. We must fight to win the prize. No people to whom liberty is given, can hold it as firmly and wear it as grandly as those who wrench their liberty from the iron hand of the tyrant. The hardships and the dangers involved in the struggle give strength and toughness to the character, and enable it to stand firm in storm as well as in sunshine.

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