Independence Day: Why Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech is still being read today

In 1852, more than a decade before the end of slavery in the United States, abolitionist Frederick Douglass called out America for celebrating the Fourth of July while millions of Americans were enslaved.

As America celebrates its Independence Day this week, a North Carolina historic site will host its first community reading of Douglass’ speech, which asks, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass gave the speech on July 5, 1852, and the reading will be held 167 years later, again on July 5.

More than 900 people were enslaved in the 1800s at Stagville State Historic Site, a former plantation that covered almost 30,000 acres in present day Durham, Wake, Person and Granville counties. The historic site is in northern Durham County now.

Vera Cecelski, the site manager at Stagville, said reading the “full-throated words and challenging and provocative words of a formerly enslaved person like Douglass” is a way to reconnect to the voices of enslaved people who once lived there and may have been thinking and saying similar things. Their voices of resistance are often what’s missing from archival records, Cecelski said.

She thinks there’s a shift in the historical community happening particularly around slavery.

“For a long time, the stories of enslaved people have not been told — or ignored or dismissed because those narratives are less comfortable or less joyful for people to engage with,” she said. But along with the oppression, great violence and abuse is a history of resistance and survival, Cecelski said.

People who want to recite parts of Douglass’ speech can sign up at the event to read a particular part, either in English or Spanish. The reading starts at 11 a.m. Friday, July 5 and will last about 45 minutes. Historic Stagville is located at 5828 Old Oxford Highway in Durham.

“What to the slave is the Fourth of July” speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass will be read at the Stagville State Historic Site in Durham County, once one of the largest plantations in North Carolina that enslaved hundreds of people.

Douglass’ speech a ‘reminder of ongoing work’

When Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton found out he was descended from enslaved people at the Middleton plantation in South Carolina, he went to visit what is now Middleton Place, a National Historic Site.

He told The Herald-Sun in 2018 that visiting Middleton Place, it smacked him in the face how much the country’s might was built on the institution of slavery. His ancestors helped build that plantation.

One of the plantation’s owners, Arthur Middleton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Mark-Anthony Middleton said he reads Douglass’ speech every year.

“It’s a wonderful reminder the American experience is an ongoing conversation.... We got freedom from a crown at the same time as tightening shackles on human beings,” Middleton said about Independence Day.

“Even today, his speech is useful because it reminds us of the ongoing work we need to do when we look at disparities between blacks and whites,” he said. “Every time we participate in the Fourth of July, we need to look around and think who isn’t free? Who is not enjoying the blessings of prosperity? Who is not participating in this incredible wealth in this country made on the backs of slaves?”

Middleton said Douglass’ speech reminds him of those questions, and that being patriotic means wanting to make your country better, not just saying everything is all right.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?’

In his speech, Douglass called out the hypocrisy of the United States:

“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 denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, known as Mass Humanities, has three versions of Douglass’ speech of varying lengths for community use at events like the one at Stagville on Friday, July 5, and in Carrboro on Thursday, July 4.

Historic Stagville was once the plantation of the Bennehan-Cameron family, formed around the time of America’s independence in 1776. Today near the main entrance, visitors will find the Bennehan house. Further down the road is Horton Grove, which includes four original slave dwellings and a large barn. Horton Grove has been the site of other events that show what life was like there in the Antebellum period, including a play performed at night, “Let Them Be Heard,” by Bare Theatre that drew stories from the 1930s Slave Narrative Project.

Douglass, who escaped slavery himself, talked about witnessing enslaved people being sold at slave markets.

“Is this the land your Fathers loved, The freedom which they toiled to win? Is this the earth whereon they moved? Are these the graves they slumber in?”

He chastises the American church for its role in supporting slavery.

“You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen.”

Slavery was not ended for more than another decade, with the Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation, and the news reaching the last enslaved people on June 19, 1865, now celebrated as Juneteenth Day every June 19. The 13th Amendment, which banned slavery, was ratified that December.

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Barber sermon July 3

Rev. William Barber, the former N.C. NAACP leader who now leads Repairers of the Breach, will give a sermon on Wednesday, July 3, that builds on Douglass’ question. He will deliver “What to the Immigrant and People of Color is the Fourth of July?” at 7 p.m. at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, 1801 Hillsborough St. in Raleigh. The event is also sponsored by the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign, El Centro Hispano, El Colectivo NC and other groups.

Carrboro event July 4

The reading of Douglass’ speech, called “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” for the sixth year in Carrboro will be held at noon as part of the town’s Fourth of July events on Carrboro Town Commons. Historian Freddie Parker, professor emeritus from N.C. Central University, will introduce the community reading.

Carrboro Alderwoman Barbara M. Foushee said the community reading of Douglass’ speech tells “a truth that a lot of us don’t think about on July 4th: the fact that slaves were not yet free on July 4, 1776, and that they were not able to enjoy the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that is spoken about in the declaration; it was an empty proclamation.”

Foushee said the Declaration of Independence was not for all, but for some.

“This speech has a visionary quality that still resonates today. Lots of barriers are still in the way; African-Americans and other minority groups are not treated with equality and are still being targeted,” she said.

“’The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes of death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,’ [Douglass said]. This passage describes how one race benefits from America’s freedom while another race suffers under its unjust treatment,” Foushee said.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.