Friday, January 13, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Birth of an Abolitionist
 
Established as a lay preacher, Douglass was beautifully positioned to be a leader in the honorable, relatively safe, correct black community of New Bedford.  By 1841, the Douglasses had moved from a small house in the rear of 157 Elm Street into a larger house at 111 Ray Street.  Secure employment, even of an almost dignified sort, could be counted on in the prosperous town, which provided schools for black children.  The Douglasses already had two; by the summer of 1841 a third was on the way.  Anna had her garden, Frederick his violin on which to play the Handel, Haydn, and Mozart in the music books he had brought with him.  This was a world, shorn of slavery, … a world into which she fit comfortably.  Her husband, already respected in the black community, could have reasonably aspired to being the second African American member of the library society.  The Douglasses had the makings of an exemplary American family, one that was getting on well.
 
But soon Douglass was restless for something more than the respectability of black New Bedford.  The churches not only gave their members religious nourishment but also provided them with the opportunities to raise their confidence by talking together of both personal and public concerns.  … Temperance … was among the chief of the public concerns.  So was antislavery, but many proper black church groups shunned it as too controversial.
 
This refusal to face what he knew from experience to be an evil troubled Douglass.  … On March 12, 1839, at a church meeting where the respectable subject of colonization was being debated, Douglass had risen and, assailing the idea of shipping slaves to Africa, had spoken of what slavery was like and why slaves should be set free, right here in America.
 
If making the speech felt good, reading the notice of it in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator may have been even more exhilarating.  With this brief item, the world took note of Frederick Douglass.  At another meeting, attended largely by white antislavery New Bedford people, Thomas James [minister of the New Bedford Zion church] was making an address when he spotted Douglass in the audience, and he called on him to “relate his story.”  This time Douglass did not simply assail colonization, but told of his own experiences as a slave (McFeely 82-83).
 
A few months after Frederick and Anna had arrived in New Bedford, a young man had come to the Douglass house “selling subscriptions to William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator.
 
Douglass tried to get rid of the agent.  When the fellow persisted, he had to reveal that he had just escaped from slavery and was still hard pressed to earn enough money to support himself and his wife.  On the strength of this the young man decided to enter a subscription for the foundry worker without payment of the fee.
 
Douglass was entranced by Garrison’s paper.  Not only did he pour over it in his spare time at home, but at the foundry he devised ways of propping a copy before him as he worked the bellows.  The picturesque denunciations of oppressors, the passionate cries for human brotherhood, the rebukes to hypocrisy in church and state, … everything about the Liberator stirred Douglass’s blood.  Garrison became his teacher, his hero, his idol.  When he finished with a copy of the Liberator, its contents had been practically memorized (Bontemps 24).
 
On April 16, 1839, Garrison came to New Bedford to speak to an integrated audience in Mechanics Hall.  Seated well back in the gallery, Frederick saw Garrison for the first time.
 
Here was the young crusader who had been thrown into a Baltimore jail for accusing a ship owner of carry slaves in his vessel, who ten years ago, while still in his twenties, had begun publishing the Liberator in a dingy third-floor in Boston, setting the old secondhand type himself and running it on a press he had bought at a bargain.  Here was the American who for his convictions had been dragged through Boston streets and with a rope tied around his neck and for whose arrest and conviction the state of Georgia was ready to pay $5,000.  He it was who had given words to ageless human agony when he put the following paragraph in the first issue of his paper:
 
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?  I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak with moderation.  No!  No!  Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; … I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.
 
 
Douglass was thrilled.  It seemed to him that Garrison was uttering “the spontaneous feeling of my own heart” (Bontemps 27-28).
 
Garrison returned to New Bedford six weeks later to speak at Liberty Hall.  Douglass again attended.  The meeting was thrown open for discussion, and the twenty-four-year-old Douglass stool up.  Somehow he had begun to feel that he too must be heard.  His words on this occasion was not preserved, but in the report of the meeting which Garrison sent back to the Liberator, he took occasion to mention “several talented young men from New Bedford, one of them formerly a slave whose addresses were listened to by large and attentive audiences with deep interest” (McFeely 85).
 
Frederick had attracted the attention of William C. Coffin, a bookkeeper in the Merchants Bank, a trustee of the Social Library, a Quaker, and a member of the vast Coffin family of Nantucket.  A staunch abolitionist, Coffin wanted many people outside of New Bedford to heard Frederick speak of his experiences.  Consequently, Coffin persuaded Frederick to attend a great mid-summer meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on Nantucket Island.
 
Now, when Coffin spotted the young black man among the people walking in from the packet, he made his way through the crowd to welcome him, defying the unwritten rule of social separation of the races.  As they walked along, Coffin invited him to rise in the meeting and, in the tradition of the Friends, to speak if it seemed right to him to do so.  Coffin had already alerted the organizers of the meeting that the remarkable young runaway might be so moved.  … Several of the great luminaries of the American Anti-Slavery Society were to be seen at the front of the congregation; Garrison … and Wendell Phillips, the patrician orator whom some thought greater than Garrison, and a host of other abolitionist leaders… (McFeely 86-87).
 
The summer evening’s light was failing as Frederick sat summoning his courage to rise, to speak.  It was a moment of great importance, of great emotion, for him when finally he did so.  Everyone in the room strained to make out the chiseled features of the young man’s face and to hear his words, which, in his unease, he was stammering.  Some later recalled that he had been confused; others spoke of his embarrassment.  He himself said in retrospect that of the hundreds of speeches he had made, it was the only one from which he could “not remember a single connected sentence.”
 
His first phrases were the apologies of the novice, but then all that he had taught himself with The Columbian Orator, all that he had had within him from the start, poured forth.  The Quaker quiet in the room was cut through with an electricity of excitement that everyone from twelve-year-old Phebe Ann Coffin to her most somber, senior relative would never forget.  With intense concentration, these New Englanders heard Frederick telling them about his life.  It was the story of a runaway slave, yes, but it was his story.  He was telling it, he was calling himself into being, and people—people he had never seen before, white people, important people—were listening (McFeely 88).
 
William Lloyd Garrison, deeply moved by Frederick’s words, rose to speak when the young man had finished.  For a time he could not be heard above the commotion in the hall.  Finally, he gained the attention of the animated audience.
 
“Have we been listening to a thing, a chattel personal, or a man?” he asked.  “A man!  A man!” the audience shouted with one accord.  “Shall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?” called out Garrison.  Anna Gardner, who was to be Douglass’s loyal friend for the rest of their long lives, remembered the whole scene. ”No! No!” shouted the audience.  Raising his voice to its fullest note, he again asked, “Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of old Massachusetts?”  With a tremendous roar the whole assembly sprang to its feet and continued shouting, “No!  No!  No!”  Garrison’s voice was lost in their vehemence.
 
 
As he sat there in the Big Shop, surrounded by standing, cheering champions, Frederick knew a triumph so intense, so total, that he would spend his entire life seeking to sustain it.  He had spoken, he had been heard.  What was more, the man in the world he most admired, “taking me as his text,” had spoken words “of unequaled power, sweeping down, like a very tornado, every opposing barrier.”   And great men pressed forward to shake his hand—Garrison, Phillips, knew him, and he knew them.  Never again would he be anonymous (McFeely 88-89).
 
 
Works cited:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.