20th anniversary of Frederick Douglass speech reading

Donoma Fredericson, 13, from Brooklyn reads from the Frederick Douglass speech on Inkwell Beach in 2018. —Teresa Kruszewski

The 20th anniversary of the July Fourth reading of Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” will be held at noon at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs this year.

“It’s an Island thing that makes you think you’re part of a community that cares,” said Abigail McGrath, founder of the writers retreat that hosts the event, previously at Inkwell Beach, every year.

Renaissance House, a nonprofit retreat for writers of color and social justice that started the speech reading, was founded by McGrath, author, playwright, and filmmaker, in 2000. 

There are 20 or so parts that can be filled by anyone, but once the spots are filled, they’re gone. McGrath said some parts of the speech are read by people who’ve participated all 20 years, and now many bring their children and grandchildren.

We have readers who are 8 years old, and no matter what, it still comes through. The words are so strong that you can’t mess it up,” McGrath said.

In 1852, Douglass, born an enslaved person in Maryland and then escaped into freedom, delivered this Independence address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass, an important abolitionist voice in the 19th century, used the speech to condemn the gap between the country’s principles and the institution of slavery.

“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,” he said at the society’s meeting at Corinthian Hall in Rochester.

To McGrath, the speech means that there’s still hope, despite the terrible things that happen every day. “You think things will never get better, but they will,” she said.

“He says it in such a way that white people don’t feel guilty. They feel sadness and empathy, but the way he writes, it doesn’t turn to hate,” she added.

Every year, the speech remains relevant and needed.

Through each administration, we say the same thing. You want to think change is coming, well, it’s coming, it just hasn’t gotten here quite yet,” she said.

The speech isn’t often taught in schools, said McGrath, and one year, a boy asked her if he could have a copy of the whole speech to learn about Douglass’s words on his own.

“To live in a society where everyone is treated equally hasn’t come yet, and that’s what we’re striving for,” she said.

Makani Themba, a writer and social justice innovator, is the director, editor, and producer of the annual speech event.

The reading is free and open to the public, and those interested in reading can email renaissancehse@aol.com or call 917-747-0367 to participate.


  1. I vividly remember my first day at Morehouse College checking into my dorm seeing a large quotation from Fredrick Douglass on the side of a buidling. “IF THERE IS NO STRUGGLE, THERE IS NO PROGRESS” this was outside of the Frederick Douglass Academic Success Center. I often forget that I must crawl before I walk especially when I pursue new endeavors. Although my favorite quotes from Fredrick Douglass have been “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” & “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Onward and Upward. ⚜️⚔️💜

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