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Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer. abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement, noted for his oratory and incisive anti-slavery writings. He advised President Lincoln on the issue and was the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States.
In 1846 Frederick Douglass toured Britain on a hugely successful speaking tour and stayed in Newcastle upon Tyne with Anna Richardson and her sister-in-law Ellen. The two Quaker women were active campaigners for a number of social causes. Towards the end of 1846 they had raised £150 and they instructed a lawyer in America to buy Frederick’s freedom. In due course, they received confirmation from Douglass’s owner. He said his ‘slave Frederick Bailey, alias Douglass’ was now ‘entirely and legally free’.
In 2019 Newcastle University opened a building close to where Douglass stayed which is called the Frederick Douglass Centre. The ceremony was attended by a descendant of Douglass.
Of course with the development of the protests around the Black Lives Matter campaign Douglass’s contribution has come to prominence again and some examples are cited below.
Prior to the July 4th celebrations this year young descendants of Douglass gathered together to reflect on his life. His view of these celebrations was cited:
“Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us? ,,, What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery“.
Previously Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden had quoted Douglass at a virtual “Juneteenth” forum, marking the abolition of slavery in the United States: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Frederick Douglass spoke those words to slave owners, 10 years before the end of slavery. When that declaration was made southern slaves had their freedom, but they faced a humanitarian crisis. Decades of almost total black voter disenfranchisement in the South ensued and more than a century of lynchings followed.
In 2013 when he was Vice President Joe Biden had praised Douglass for his work to bring about equal justice when he led a series of tributes at the unveiling of a statue of the 19th-century abolitionist. The 7-foot bronze likeness of Douglass joined statues of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in Emancipation Hall in Washington.
Brian Ward will discuss Douglass in the context of Newcastle’s long history of association with the cause of black civil rights in the USA, previously illustrated most notably in the university awarding a honorary degree to Martin Luther King Jnr. shortly before his death.