Remembering the words of Frederick Douglass

Oak Bluffs group recites his famous Fourth speech.

Islanders, vacationers, and passersby gathered on Inkwell Beach on the Fourth of July for the Renaissance House 11th annual reading of “What Does July Fourth Mean to the Negro?” by Frederick Douglass. Twenty-four readers stood before the crowd, feet planted in the sand as they rotated through the 10,000-plus-word address he had given 165 years earlier.

“This is a speech I never learned in school, and I went to a lot of schools,” Abigail McGrath, founder of the Renaissance House and organizer of Tuesday’s event, said.

Mr. Douglass, an abolitionist and orator, spoke before a crowd in Rochester, N.Y., giving his address to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester. Rochester sat in the center of the “burned-over” district — a region known in the 19th century for religious revivals and reforms.

“The words are so strong that they leave you sort of trembling, because it is just so true today,” Ms. McGrath said.

In his address, Mr. Douglass posed the question, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.”

Longtime resident, Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D, said she does not usually celebrate the Fourth of July. Ms. Harris has authored several books as a culinary historian.
“This year, though, I feel it’s important to make Frederick Douglass’ eloquent words be heard through participating,” said Ms. Harris. “I’m arriving a week earlier than I usually do just to be in that number on the beach.”

Frederick Collins, a law professor at John Jay College and historical expert on Mr. Douglass, read the address the first year. Makani Themba, chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies, condensed the speech down to about two hours, tailor-fitting the needs of reading participants.

“It’s quite emotional, to be honest with you — I read this piece many, many years ago, but I think it was today that was particularly moving for me,” Ronald A. Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond.

Frederick Douglass published one of the most influential African-American antislavery publications of the pre–Civil War era, The North Star. The name paid homage to escaping slaves, who used the North Star as their guide in the night. The newspaper’s motto: “Right is of no sex —Truth is of no color — God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.”

“When Frederick Douglass gave this speech, he was at risk of going to jail and being killed, because it was against the law, even in Rochester, N.Y.,” Ms. McGrath said. “You realize the truth isn’t a universal truth, and we think we’ve made progress — and in some ways we have — but there’s such a long way to go, so don’t stop fighting.”