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On the Twenty-First Anniversary of Emancipation


An 1883 address by Frederick Douglass in the Congregational Church, Washington, DC. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



Frederick Douglass (1818?-1895), African American ex-slave, abolitionist, and leader, delivered this 1883 address commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. When he gave this speech African American civil rights were under heavy attack during the early 1880s. The US Supreme Court was vitiating constitutional protection of civil rights in a series of decisions; segregation of public transport had begun; and lynching continued to proliferate. 

In opening his speech, Douglass sensed that he represented “the downfall of slavery” (1) and that he was speaking before a new generation facing different challenges. His message to them concerning the current African American situation was mixed: “The sky of the American Negro is dark, but not rayless; it is stormy, but not cheerless.” (2) Blacks had been driven out of election polls and courtroom juries, he argued, because they were being sacrificed in a white racial compact. “Peace with the old master class has been war to the Negro. As the one has risen, the other has fallen.” (2) However, blacks had the advantages of persistent opposition to racial stereotypes and their political resistance. A black man “may be riddled with bullets, or roasted over a slow fire by the mob, but his cause cannot be shot or burned or otherwise destroyed.” (5) 

Douglass viewed the political moment as filled with a need for caution. Just as Lincoln had warned that the nation could not remain half-slave and half-free, so too it could not continue to recognize the civil rights of whites while refusing to recognize those of blacks. Despite setbacks in court decisions, public schools, public transport, employment and trade-union organizing, he repeats “This discussion will go on.” (7) The battle had been won before in the fight against slavery, he tells his audience, and will be won again over civil rights. 

The fight for African American rights did not begin with William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass states, although he offers love and veneration to Garrison’s memory. (8) He cites a history of antislavery thought reaching back to Benjamin Lundy and David Walker (9), and then the seventeenth century and Morgan Godwin’s controversial assertion of religious rights for blacks. (9-10) To trace the historical course of abolitionism, he argues, is to map black progress. 

That advancement has reached a point, according to Douglass, where the white racial fear of black progress appears in the recently-published and much-noticed Popular Science Monthly [22 (February 1883) 436-445] essay of Edward W. Gilliam. Gilliam, a white physician, employed demographic data to predict black majorities through much of the American South, a development he thought would generate black-white racial warfare and believed should be addressed through deportation of blacks and colonization in Africa. See George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987) 240. As one journal observed concerning Gilliam’s conclusions, in an unsigned comment probably contributed by social reform writer Albion Tourgee, “The predictions of Professor Gilliam must be peculiarly startling to those classes of our social and political thinkers who have been accustomed to consider the future of the negro in America as a question of minor importance.” The Continent 3 (February 28, 1883) 9: 282. From another perspective, Douglass points out that where it had once contended over the rights of black souls, white opinion was now concerned with the prospect of black sovereignty. (12)

In comparison with past conditions, despite popular prejudice, the African American community would be able to prosper through unity, effort, and cooperation. (13) Their great step towards this future came with the Emancipation Proclamation. The future, for Douglass, would be pursued through a policy of assimilation into the American body politic. Dissenting from efforts to establish a separate black political party, Douglass abjures separatism. He concludes on an optimistic note, asserting that the American tendency “is to progress, enlightenment and to the universal.” (16)

- Joe Lockard