What to do on the 5th of July? Go to the historical Stageville Plantation outside of Durham. Go to Horton Grove, the place where the slave quarters built in 1851 still stand on what was a 30,000 acre plantation with 900 slaves. Go to this place. Feel, imagine what life must have been like for these enslaved people. Participate in a community reading of Frederick Douglass' famous speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?
In 1852, the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association invited abolitionist, activist and statesman Frederick Douglass to speak at their July Fourth Independence Day Celebration in Rochester, N.Y.
But he agreed to speak on July 5 instead.
Before an audience composed of Washington politicians, white abolitionists, and President Millard Fillmore, Douglass presented what still stands as one of history’s greatest example of speaking truth to power. Douglass’ unapologetic criticism of America’s hypocrisy still rings true to this very day.
Frederick Douglass' speech was printed out in numbered paragraphs so that participants could sign up to read a paragraph or two. Several children participated. Here is the section that I read.
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
I was moved by this experience. I was dumbfounded that the slave quarters that I was standing in front of were built at around the same time that Frederick Douglas delivered his address.
Before the reading, the N.C. State historical site staff person read from the July 5th, 1865 Raleigh newspaper about the Independence Day celebration after the Civil War. She mentioned jubilation in the streets - for it was a time of great hope for many.
She did not mention that it was a brief window of opportunity for a better society, what could be, before reconstruction was abandoned and white supremacy reasserted itself.
This was the first reading of Frederick Douglas at Horton Grove. It will now be an annual event. If I am in Durham next July 5th, I will definitely go again. My hope will need recharging by then.