Black History Month: Frederick Douglass and his Legacy

By Charlotte Stevenson

As York St. John marks Black History Month, Charlotte Stevenson discusses the Frederick Douglass event led by English Literature Subject Director, Anne-Marie Evans.

Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom – Frederick Douglass

‘Knowledge can only take us forward’ were among the opening words Dr. Anne-Marie Evans stated as she began to discuss the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass, speaking as ‘not only an academic but as a fan’. What followed was an hour in which Douglass himself felt present, the importance of education and of equality being at the forefront of everyone’s attention.

Frederick Douglass was a social reformer, writer and abolitionist. His origins began in slavery, as do the stories of many black men and women from 1619 – 1895. Separated from his mother at an early age and surrounded by atrocity, Douglass was taught the beginning of the alphabet by Sophia Auld, the wife of his ‘owner’. What began as an illegal teaching (slaves were not permitted to read or write) developed into a self-education Douglass was eager to share with fellow slaves. Though violence was inflicted to try and contain his voice, Douglass was able to escape to freedom in New York in 1838.

Once in the city as a free man, Douglass began to write and speak out on the importance of Civil Rights and Abolition. He also spoke out against marginalisation in all of its forms (e.g. treatment of women at this time). His ‘mission to educate and empower’ knew no bounds and Douglass was not afraid to travel to spread this message and to promote human equality, traveling extensively not only in the U.S. but also across the United Kingdom and Ireland. This speaking out was vitally important to the fight for the end of slavery because as Dr. Anne-Marie Evans stated, slavery was a ‘dehumanising process’ and slaves were not at this time ‘legally represented as human’ at all. In showing the fundamental element of humanity, compassion and understanding, Douglass was able to speak out for the injustice that was being routinely and legally inflicted upon innocent, uneducated black individuals. 

Further to the history of his life time, this event sought to look at Douglass’ legacy as a whole and to realise fully the reality of what he achieved, both during his lifetime and after. In order to do so, this legacy was broken into seven sections, those being:

  • Writing and freedom
  • How Douglass redefined the idea of the American Hero
  • Making a new model of American freedom
  • Women’s suffrage
  • International outreach
  • Cultural influence
  • Redefining/Rethinking public space

A moment which particularly stands out in my memory is that of Douglass and his writing, specifically that of his autobiography. Dr. Anne-Marie discussed how slaves at the time would have needed a written pass in order to have permitted mobility. By ‘injecting himself firmly into his own narrative’ Evans argued, ‘his book becomes his metaphorical pass to freedom’. In creating a written document, which was frequently revised by Douglass throughout his lifetime, he actively rebelled against what was expected of an enslaved black man in this period by ‘claiming his citizenship and his slavery’ boldly and with his own signature. The result was that not only was Douglass a huge influence in his own time as he remains today, he was also recognised during his life as a hero.

In addition to this, the hypocrisy of the American concept of liberty at this time was called into question. How was it that, as Douglass states in his infamous What to a Slave is the Fourth of July speech, ‘I am not included’. Freedom and independence, all of those attributes we recognise as distinctly American, were barred from Douglass as a slave and as a black man. In using his vocation to speak out, Dr. Evans spotlighted that ‘how America sees itself’ was radically objected and rightly so. This was not a land of Liberty, but a land of luxury at the expense of the oppression of human life and ironically, this went hand in hand with some of the Founding Fathers of the country such as Thomas Jefferson who himself had around 1000 slaves. How could a land where 1.4% of Americans ‘owned’ other enslaved citizens be considered one of liberty and freedom?

Resource from the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress

‘Douglass is seen now as a public intellectual; good! It’s about time!’ stated Dr.Anne-Marie as she observed how Frederick Douglass has now gained a recognisable face that is firmly rooted in our pop culture. And whilst racism does still prevail in the Twenty-First Century, whilst there is still hate crime and abuse, far more frequent than this is compassion and education to make things better. It is precisely these latter focuses, of progress and of kindness to all humans, that Douglass was so crucial to popularising. ‘Working for a better world’ is in my eyes the main legacy that Douglass has left behind and it is a legacy which is still very much living. It is not confined to the pages of the textbook but walks on the street beside us and speaks up in our conscience; how can we pick up our pen and change the world? What do we have to say? Whatever it is, despite the consequences, what Frederick Douglass is testament to is that what is right must always come before what is easy. To quote the briefly referenced Hamilton:

‘What is legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see grow’.