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Recalling Douglass in the age of Obama

Reynolds D. Graves | 6/24/2009, 6:32 a.m.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass spoke to a majority white audience in Rochester, N.Y. The great orator and abolitionist had been asked to deliver an address commemorating the Declaration of Independence, following a formal reading of the document that day.

What followed was a fiery speech, considered by some to be Douglass’ greatest, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it, he expressed the unique disconnect from the notion of American independence that he felt as a former slave, as well as his determination to achieve such freedom for African Americas in the United States.

Douglass’ words still resonate 157 years later. That much was proven during a recent reading of the speech that brought elected officials and citizens from across the state — including New Bedford, the site of Douglass’ former home — to Boston Common to consider the historical importance of the address in an America perhaps unimaginable to Douglass: one led by a black president.

“This event is a chance to talk about what Douglass’ July 5th speech means today, in a post-Obama world,” said David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, which sponsored the June 2 event with Community Change Inc. and Mass Humanities.

The reading continued a recent increase of attention on Douglass in the Commonwealth. Back in February, Gov. Deval Patrick issued a proclamation establishing in Massachusetts days to honor both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, who were longtime friends and leaders in the abolition and women’s suffrage movements.

According to historical records, Douglass’ first owner recorded his birth as coming in the year 1818, but the exact calendar date was unknown. His mother often referred to him as “my little valentine,” and later in life he accepted Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, as his birthday. For that reason, Frederick Douglass Day will be observed on Feb. 14, while Susan B. Anthony Day will be held on Feb. 15, her birthday.

Ronald Marlow is the assistant secretary for access and opportunity in the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance. He was involved in the issuing of the proclamations honoring Douglass and Anthony, as well as the commemoration recognizing June 19, 1865, or “Juneteenth,” as the day that recognizes the emancipation of the last remaining­ slaves in the United States, and other civil rights-related issues.

Douglass was concerned with questions emanating from slavery, according to Marlow — how all Americans, regardless of their past status, could make true the words of the Declaration of Independence, and whether or not citizens were living up to the document’s lofty words. Issues, Marlow added, that remain relevant today.

“The proclamation serves as a vehicle for the public to take notice,” he said. “Anytime there is a focus on historical figures, there is time for reflection and a time for people to think back on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go.”

Bridging the gap between past and present was one of several goals of the June 2 event.