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.Frederick Douglass
Fireworks and concerts on the mall and neighborhood fireworks displays are annual traditions in Washington, D.C., but there is another tradition that acknowledges that independence was not accorded to all citizens on the July 4, 1776. Each year (before the current pandemic one) at the Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill home in Anacostia, there is a program that includes the reading of Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
An actor reenacts parts of the speech that Douglass gave to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York. In his speech, a 34 year old Douglass acknowledged the vision of the founding fathers and highlighted the suffering of the millions of Americans not accorded freedom at Independence.
In the words of Frederick Douglass:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”
But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
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; 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 these United States, at this very hour.
… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation. I do not despair of this country… I therefore leave off where I began, with hope.”
There are also musical performances and speeches to highlight the event.
Douglass lived at Cedar Hill from 1877 to 1895 first with his wife Anna Murray Douglass (m. 1838-1882) and then Helen Pitts Douglass (m. 1884-1895). The interior has been restored to what it looked like in 1895 at the time of his death. The house and grounds are managed by The National Park Service which runs guided tours of the house year round. On July 4th, self-guided tours of the first floor of the house are typically available after the program. Artifacts like Douglass’ travel trunk and the curtain ties that are ball and chain as reminders of slavery are notable items from tours.
The house and the eight acres of the estate are also a National Historical Site. The house, built between 1855 and 1859, has commanding views of D.C. from its perch atop a 50 foot hill.
The Frederick Douglass House and Visitor’s Center at 1411 W Street SW is currently closed because of the pandemic. The house can be toured virtually (https://www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm) but the July 4th program will not take place this year. The full text of the speech Douglass presented can be found online and his words read to remember differences in what freedom and independence has meant to Americans.
Frederick Douglass has been part of recent Black Lives Matter protests through words and images, even including an actor in period clothing at Lincoln Park, and his image has long been on murals in the city as a reminder of his importance as an abolitionist, statesman, writer and orator. Should the District of Columbia be granted statehood as the 51st state, which has now passed the House of Representatives and awaits a Senate vote, the Council of DC has approved changing the name to the Douglass Commonwealth in honor of Frederick Douglass.
All photos copyright to the Karen Ramsey.