Black History Month: Some time ago, February was designated as Black History Month. I have mixed emotions about that particular designation. I think it’s always a good thing to focus attention on history, particularly American history since so many Americans really don’t know a lot about their nation. I suppose the whole idea rose from the notion that the school system in this country didn’t really mention much about African-Americans except in the context of slavery. However, I have a problem with a focus on a particular group of Americans. I am not saying that it’s wrong to have such a month; I guess I really think that its too bad that it was a necessity. You see, those individuals who are discussed in February are part of American history and I believe that they should be seen simply as Americans because all citizens, past and present are, in my view, my American brother and sister and my fellow American. Race, religion or ethnicity does not add or dimish their position as an American. Another thing that bothers me is the a grand oversight. I’ve gone to some Black History Month presentations and they always quite properly include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sometimes they talk about the contributions of George Washington Carver at the events of which I have attended. Typically following the discussion of such well-known luminaries, they go off into some modern rappers or sports stars. If it’s a good presentation, then it will rightfully include Jackie Robinson, but Mr. Robinson sometimes loses out to other Americans whose acheivements really don’t measure up to that of Robinson or Carver and certainly not even in the same neighborhood as Dr. King. But, almost every time, they leave out someone whom I believe to be one of the most important Americans in our history. His name is Frederick Douglass and all Americans should know about the man.
Even though Douglass often is left out of the Black History month discussion, his life was actually part of the reason why February has the designation. The foundation of Black History Month dates back to the 1920’s when a Harvard doctoral graduate and former slave chose the month of focus since both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in February and Douglass also died then as well. Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in February 1818. Douglass often suggested that his mother, Harriet Bailey, conceived Douglass following the advances of white man who was not his mother’s husband. It may be for that reason that Douglass did not live with his mother but instead was put in the cabin of his grandmother Besty Bailey by owner, Captain Aaron Anthony. Even though he lived with his grandmother, it didn’t take long for Douglass to be hired out and so his familial ties were not strong. In 1826, he went to Baltimore to work and live in the household of Hugh and Sophia Auld. Sophia was Capt Anthony’s daughter and Douglass lived with the couple for 7 years from 1826 to 1833. During that time, he watched the Auld’s young son and also was taught to read and write by Sophia…that is until Hugh told her to stop. But, the seeds were already sewn.
Douglass continued to teach himself to read and write on his own. He secretly helped organized schools for slaves. He resisted his position as a slave. He tried to escape and was imprisoned for awhile and was sent to a plantation where slaves who needed to be “broken” were sent. But, he never bowed. In 1838, he broke his bonds and escaped to New York. He got married and had children. He fell in with abolitionists. He had read books related to oratory and taught himself to make public speeches. At the age of 23, he gave a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention and caught the attention of many abolitionists included renown abolitionist William Garrison. Now, Douglass given name was really Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey but he realized that if he were to go on the speaking circuit, then he’d have to change his name to Frederick Douglass. Afterall, he was officially a fugitive slave and could be returned to slavery. So, he adopted the last name of Douglass.
On two occasions, Douglass fled to Europe to avoid recapture. On one of his trips, sympathetic Europeans who heard Douglass speak raised money and bought his freedom. By the time of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass finally was safe in the land of the free and home of the brave. His autobiography that detailed his life in slavery was a huge hit and the words he wrote and the words he spoke were significant contributors to the ultimate destruction of slavery. Not only for the general public, but also for President Abraham Lincoln who consulted with Douglass regarding Lincoln’s policies and thoughts concerning slavery and the emancipation issue. That included an idea Lincoln had about creating a colony in South America where freed slaves could live. Lincoln for a time had the notion that Blacks and Whites were never intended to live together nor was it possible. While he did not believe in equality of the races, Lincoln also felt it was morally wrong for take what was earned from “the sweat of another man’s brow.” Douglass impressed him as a tremendous mind and thinker and also took into consideration Douglass’ admonition that America was as much his country as it was the President’s. Remember, Lincoln was born in the country just 9 years prior to Douglass. Lincoln knew that Douglass had a very good and strong point.
Frederick Douglass was a proud man. He was a tough man. He was a smart, self taught man and great thinker. He was bold and fearless. Not only did he contribute to the rights of Blacks, he also lent his name and effort to the equality of women. He even was on the ticket for an early feminist presidential candidate. Age did not diminish his courage though. After his first wife died, he married a white, feminist woman and that, he said, brought condemnation and scorn from both Blacks and Whites alike. His story is absolutely remarkable and one that every American should know and be proud to be able to say that Frederick Douglass was our American brother. So, as Black History month comes to a close just remember that the legacy and life of a great American, Frederick Douglass, deserves as much recognition and acknowledgement as any American. In my view, there is no other adjective beside “American” is needed to describe Frederick Douglass. As he did in life, he can stand on his own for the ages.