Saturday, January 28, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- On the Abolitionist Circuit
 
Immediately after the Nantucket meeting John A. Collins, general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, urged Frederick to become a touring speaker.  He would be paid at least what he already made in New Bedford and the Society would ensure his protection.  Frederick, flush from his triumph but nonetheless caution, agreed to try it for three months.  He would tour the eastern counties of Massachusetts with a white abolitionist.  The two of them would hold meetings at which both would speak with Frederick telling the same story he had told at Nantucket.  Afterward, they would try to sell subscriptions to the Anti-Slavery Standard and the Liberator.
 
The meetings went well.  In most of the towns that the two abolitionists visited, local abolitionists had arranged for the public meetings, had assembled the crowds, and were themselves speakers.  They were not the reason why most of the townspeople came to listen, however.  Few had ever seen a fugitive slave, none had actually heard one speak of his experiences.  Frederick Douglass did not disappoint them.  As the tour progressed, the public meetings became livelier.  New converts were made to the cause.  Soon John C. Collins, a more prestigious abolitionist, replaced George Foster as Frederick’s touring companion.
 
Amidst the seriousness of the cause, the two used humor.  Collins would point at the handsome and dignified young fugitive and, grinning, refer to him as a “thing, a piece of Southern property, a chattel.”  After an appropriate pause, he would say, “it could speak.”  After the laughter subsided, Frederick indeed did speak.
 
He was especially effective using his gift of mimicry.  He became the Southern minister, speaking to the slaves gathered below him.  “Servants, be obedient unto your masters,” he would intone.  “Oh, consider the wonderful goodness of God!  Look at your hard, horny hands, your strong muscular frames, and see how mercifully he had adapted you to the duties you are to fulfill!  While to your masters, who have slender frames and long, delicate fingers, he has given brilliant intellects, that they may do the thinking while you do the working.”  Invariably this parody caused wild cheering.
 
Frederick relished his new work.  It seemed to him that he had found at last his calling in life.  The suffering that he had endured and what he had become because of it were now the tools he would use in a cause that seemed more important than life itself.  In the company of the white abolitionists with whom he traveled and whom he met he sought to broaden himself.  He talked with them, analyzed their ideas, formed his own, read constantly.  As he continued to speak, he began to express these thoughts, along with the recital of his own slave experiences.  As he continued this trend, he discovered that his abolitionist friends were becoming increasingly disturbed.
 
Collins advised him, before the beginning of one meeting, to “stick to the facts”; he and the white abolitionists would provide “the philosophy.”  Parker Pillsbury advised that it was better to “have a little of the plantation” in his speech.  Garrison, himself, suggested that Frederick should not sound too “learned.”  Otherwise, people might not “believe you were ever a slave.”  Frederick, however, refused to accept the limited role his white companions apparently had prescribed for him.  His continued effectiveness as a speaker ultimately silenced their objections.  He always remained within the boundaries to Garrisonian doctrine—that slavery and all institutions that tolerated slavery, including government and the church, should be denounced, that slavery should be combated as a moral issue and could be eradicated only when humanity recognized it as a moral evil.  Still, Frederick would not permit his independent nature to be checked.
 
To the surprise of many, he contradicted, to some extent, some of the stereotypical propaganda the white abolitionists had leveled at white slaveholders.
 
He made it clear to his listeners that slaves, far from having been brutalized into stupidity, were consciously and acutely aware of their oppression.  They only “pretend to be stupid,” Douglass told the people of Hingham, as they “commit all sorts of foolery and act like baboons and wild beasts in [the] presence of their master; but every word is noted in the memory, and told to their fellow slaves.”  And he observed, “Waiters hear their masters talk at table, cursing the abolitionists, John Quincy Adams, &c.; the masters imagine that their poor slaves are so ignorant they don’t know the meaning of the language they are using” (McFeely 94).
 
If the white abolitionists were incorrect about matters he knew about from first-hand experience, Frederick was forthright in correcting them.  He was equally forthright in his observations about what he perceived to be a terrible evil in the North.
 
If only his South could be granted the “quietness” of emancipation, it would be preferable to the North.  Northern people, he told one audience, “say we [black slaves] could not learn if we had a chance … but … [Southerners] do not believe it, or they would not have laws … to prevent it.  The northern people,” he continued, “think that if slavery were abolished, we would all come north.  … We would all seek our home and our friends, but, more than all, to escape from northern prejudice, would we go to the south” (McFeely 95).
 
At another meeting he said,
 
“Prejudice against color is stronger north than south; it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight.  It presses me out from among my fellow men, and, although I have met it at every step the three years I have been out of southern slavery, I have been able, in spite of its influence, ‘to take care of myself.’”  … With vivid descriptions of beatings and of how families were torn apart by sales, he did establish that the South’s treatment of his people was far worse than that meted out to him in the North, but unlike many white abolitionists, he seldom allowed his audiences the comfort of thinking their region was innocent” (McFeely 94).
 
Whenever he traveled by train, as he now increasingly did, Douglass had to contend with racial segregation.
 
On September 8, 1841, Douglass and John A. Collins attempted to sit together as they traveled to an antislavery meeting in Dover, New Hampshire.  The conductor ordered Douglass to go into the “negro car.”  When he refused, the conductor called for help, and four or five men dragged him away from his seat; Collins was also knocked around in the process.  Toward the end of the month Douglass boarded a first-class car of the Eastern line … at Lynn and was again confronted by a conductor—perhaps the same one, and certainly one with whom he had had an earlier discussion.  When told to move, Douglass said quietly, “If you give me one good reason why I should …, I’ll go willingly.”  The conductor, trembling with anger, said, “You have asked that question before” and Douglass retorted, “I mean to continue asking the question over and over again … as long as you continue to assault me in this manner,” and he asked it again.  The conductor hesitated before finally blurting out, “Because you are black.”  Then he called for reinforcements to “snake out the d—d nigger.”  Douglass clutched the bolted bench with his stevedore hands, and when he landed back on the Lynn platform, he still had his seat.
 
Work cited:
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.