The Consulate General of Ireland and the Rose Library at Emory University collaborated Nov. 27 on a ceremony marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, which drew almost 400 attendees to fill Emory’s Cannon Chapel.
The event featured Emory’s foremost scholars of African American history to provide context and readings from some of the eminent historical figure’s most moving and inspiring speeches delivered over the course of his remarkable career.
Mr. Douglass was renowned as a public figure who ended his official career as the U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia and the U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti.
As a public figure he was renowned for his escape at age 20 from slavery in Maryland eventually moving to the free-state of Massachusetts where he encountered the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and launched his own career as a speaker condemning slavery.
Self-educated, Mr. Douglass published an auto-biography in 1845 and traveled to Great Britain and Ireland to escape bounty hunters and to engage in a speaking tour condemning slavery in the U.S. During his stay in Ireland, he became deeply chagrined by the plight of many of the Irish affected by the onset of the potato famine and began to expand his concerns about human rights more generally. Upon his return to the U.S., he spoke out more frequently on behalf of women’s rights as well.
While in Ireland he visited Cork, Dublin and Belfast, and met Daniel O’Connell, the Irish political leader who campaigned for Catholic emancipation including the right of Catholics to sit in the Westminster Parliament. Mr. O’Connell led the efforts to repeal the Acts of Union, which combined Great Britain and Ireland.
Shane Stephens, Ireland’s consul general for the Southeast based in Atlanta, told Global Atlanta that the consulate initiated the event in conjunction with the Rose Library because of its renowned Irish and African American literary collections. An exhibition of the library’s African American collection including the Dublin edition of the “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave,” published in 1845, was specially prepared at the Schatten Gallery in the Robert W. Woodruff Library to coincide with the evening event.
In his opening comments Mr. Stephens said that he was “awestruck” by Mr. Douglass’ career and the ties he developed with the Irish people as an orator at 27 years old.
“He formed the second front in the battle against slavery, shaming those who favored slavery,” Mr. Stephens said. Christine Kinealy, an authority on Irish history and co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Ireland Project, who teaches at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, also attended and pointed to the Irish ties that stretched across the Atlantic with Mr. Douglass having been born to Harriet Bailey, a slave who carried an Irish name.
Mr. Douglass was given at birth the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His father was white and said to be his master.
Following his escape from slavery by borrowing the identification papers of a free black sailor, he moved to New York and changed his surname to Johnson in 1838. Later that year after moving to Massachusetts, he changed his name again to Douglass in an effort to disguise his status as an escaped slave. Dr. Kinealy underscored that “He (Douglass) felt safe in Ireland for the first time in his life and he felt as an equal. He encountered no prejudice on account of his color.”
Mr. Stephens called the commitment to human rights including Mr. Douglass’ efforts against slavery as “an essential part of the narrative between Ireland and the United States.”
That narrative, he added, included the advancement of human rights and he remarked that “Ireland in recent years has become more diverse with 18 percent of Ireland’s population now coming from outside the country. So there is a special resonance today for diversity. Many of Ireland’s citizens from Asia and Africa look more like Douglass than they look like me.”
Pellom McDaniels III, curator of the library’s African American collection, explained the evening’s format whereby speakers would alternate between presentation of the historical context for a speech Mr. Douglass delivered and then a reading of the speech.
He also announced that there would be musical interludes by the fiddler Patrick Finley who would play period pieces and a song about Mr. Douglass by Jeremy Hathcoat.
Randall Burkett, the recently retired curator of the African American collection at the library, provided an overview of Mr. Douglass’ visit to Ireland, followed by the address, “I am here to spread light on American slavery,” to be read by Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a descendant of Mr. Douglass.
In that address delivered on Oct. 23, 1845, in Cork, Ireland, Mr. Douglass described the brutality of slavery and praised the efforts of Daniel O’Connell to encourage the Irish community in America to support the abolitionist movement. Mr. Douglass also touched upon his perennial themes of the hypocrisy of Christians, “who hated facts,” in supporting slavery, saying that “the church and the slave prison stand together.”
Yolanda Cooper, the librarian of Emory’s Robert Woodruff Library, introduced the speech Mr. Douglass delivered on July 4, 1852, at Corinthia Hall in Rochester, New York, a searing indictment of the gap between the United States’ professed values in the Declaration of Independence and the state of slavery, which he called “a hollow mockery of the Declaration of Independence.”
The speech was read by Elliott Sephus, an Atlanta-based actor, including the moving account of a slave market in New Orleans, and biting criticism of the Fugitive Slave Act, which he said provided “the right of the hunter” with a “hellish sport” and an “infringement on Christianity.”
Joe Crespino, chair of Emory history department, provided the background to Mr. Douglass’ “Address for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments,” delivered on July 6, 1863 at the National Hall in Philadelphia. Teresa L. Fry Brown, the Bandy professor of preaching at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, read from the speech, which underscored Mr. Douglass’ belief that fighting for the Union was fighting for the freedom of the black soldiers, adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
Carol Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler professor and chair of African American Studies at Emory, cited the Sept. 24, 1883 address to the National Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Ky., in which Mr. Douglas explained why African Americans had to remain vigilant on behalf of the rights they gained with the conclusion of the Civil War. Three weeks later on Oct. 15, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 declaring that racial discrimination in public accommodations was not contrary to the Constitution and setting in place the Jim Crow era.
The address was read by Robert Franklin, the James T. and Berta R. Laney chair in Moral Leadership at Candler and the former president of Morehouse College from 2007-12. In the address, Mr. Douglass said that “Though we have had war, reconstruction and abolition as a nation, we still linger in the shadow and blight of an extinct institution.”
Michelle Gordon, senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of African American Studies and director of Undergraduate Studies, evoked Mr. Douglass’ affection and pride for the Haitian people and the republic of Haiti where he was appointed consul general in 1889.
In 1892, Mr. Douglass was appointed commissioner in charge of the Haitian exhibit at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His appointment and presence at the exposition was bitterly criticized at the time, but he defended his support for Haiti in several speeches including his appreciation for the scale and beauty of the pavilion representing Haiti. Additionally, he used the pavilion as a platform to continue his advocacy of equal rights. Brendan Moore, who teaches in Emory’s Department of Comparative Literature, read this address.
Clinton Fluker, assistant director, Engagement and Scholarship at Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library, provided an overview of the respect that the histories, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois held for Mr. Douglass.
The actor Louis Gossett Jr. was scheduled to read in person a poem written on Feb. 20, 1895, by Mr. Dubois upon the death of Mr. Douglass. Although he did not attend, a video of his reading was played for the attendees.
Consul General Stephens will be attending a Global Atlanta Consular Conversation program on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at the law offices of Miller and Martin PLLC, 1180 Peachtree St. NW, Suite 2100, from noon to 1:30 p.m. during which he will discuss Ireland’s cultural outreach including the Frederick Douglass anniversary, and a Northern Ireland delegation to Atlanta concerning the Good Friday Agreement.
He also is to speak about Ireland’s posture toward the Brexit deal negotiations, the effect of U.S. tax cuts and jobs act on Irish investment, the status of Irish tech investment in Georgia as well as reflect on his time in Atlanta and the expansion of Ireland’s consular staff here.
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