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What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

January 15th, 2012

An engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass, noted African-American abolitionist. Douglass was an active abolitionist in the Rochester area and a sought-after lecturer after the Civil War. After his home on South Avenue was destroyed by fire in 1872 he moved to Washington, D.C. [PORTRAIT BY: Ritchie, Alexander Hay, 1822-1895.]
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day we are hopefully reminded of the inspiring actions and many speeches by an individual who dedicated his life to the pursuit of freedom and basic human rights—not just for one group, but for all people.

Of course, in Rochester we also remember other individuals who made tremendous contributions to this ongoing effort… Susan B. Anthony for women’s rights and suffrage. And Frederick Douglas (depicted above) for the abolition of slavery.

One speech in particular, given by Douglas on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, is arguably one of the most momentous oratories in American history. It’s one that helped set the stage for the transformation of America from a country that was, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “half slave and half free” to one which was at least on its way to guaranteeing the “blessings of liberty” to all men (and eventually women)…

Corinthian Hall, on Exchange Place (later Corinthian Street) behind the Reynolds Arcade on Main Street. It was to be called the Athenaeum Building, but was renamed Corinthian Hall because of the columns in its interior. The second floor housed the library of the Mechanics (literary) Association. Designed by architect Henry Searle, it was built for William Reynolds in 1849. It became one of Rochester's most prestigous sites for concerts, balls, lectures, fairs, plays and parties. It was remodeled in 1879 and was then often called the Academy of Music. It was ravaged by fire in 1898 but managed to reopen in 1904 as the Corinthian Theater. It closed in 1928 and was razed a year later to make room for a parking area.Douglass’ address was delivered at Corinthian Hall external link, one of Rochester’s most prestigous sites for concerts, balls, lectures, fairs, plays and parties. The great hall stood on what is now called Corinthian Street external link, behind Reynold’s Arcade (unfortunately the building was razed in 1928 and replaced with a parking area). The event was hosted by the Ladies of the Rochester Anti Slavery Sewing Society external link to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and the irony was not lost on Douglass. He told his audience:

This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

On the surface Douglass’ oratory was a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of slavery in the United States and eventually became known as What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? external link But his message went much deeper by challenging the widely-held belief (among white and even black freemen) that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slave document…

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made?

Douglass, and others later on, would argue that the Constitution could, and should, be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery.

A view of the home of Isaac and Amy Post, a stop on the Underground Railroad (1893). It was located on Sophia Street (now Plymouth Avenue) in Rochester. The site later became Central Presbyterian Church where the funerals of Frederick Douglass (1895) and Susan B. Anthony (1906) took place. Today the church is used by Hochstein Music School. [IMAGE: Rochester Public Library]Frederick Douglass wrote several books external linkabout his life detailing his escape by train from slavery in Baltimore, and also his work in Rochester, where he often hid other people who were escaping to Canada. This house on Sophia Street (now Plymouth Ave.) was one local stop on the Underground Railroad.

The hardships Douglass had to overcome to be able to speak on this stage in Rochester were astounding. Born into slavery, separated from his mother as an infant, traded like property, beat down physically and psychologically by several ‘masters’, denied any meaningful education, stripped of his identity… he never even knew his own age! In spite of all this, somehow he could see ahead to a day when America would fulfill its promise:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.

LEFT: A view showing the laying of the cornerstone of the monument to Frederick Douglass in Rochester. The ceremony took place on July 20, 1898 and was attended by hundreds of citizens. [IMAGE: Rochester Public Library] ... RIGHT: The Frederick Douglass monument, made by Sidney W. Edwards, was first unveiled in 1899, facing south, at Central Avenue and St. Paul Street. The New York Central Railroad Station is in the background. It was later moved to Highland Park and rededicated, September 4, 1941. It now faces north. [IMAGE: Albert R. Stone Collection]And with that last line, spoke 160 years ago in Rochester NY, Frederick Douglass delivered the type of forward-looking message of hope that would be heard in the inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. one hundred and ten years later; and one day echoed by America’s first black president.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, January 15th, 2012 at 4:11 pm and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester Images. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”

  1. Brian M. says:

    Fascinating. I’d like to read more about the oratory history of Rochester. One of my heroes is Robert G. Ingersoll, one of the greatest orators in American history. He spoke on a ton of stuff. But he was also one of the most marginalized and least-mentioned in history books – due to his being an outspoken agnostic who challenged religious lunacy back then. He was born near Rochester… wonder if he visited the city for any speeches.

  2. @Brian, thanks for the comment. After some quick Googling I learned that Robert Green Ingersoll spoke at Corinthian Hall on at least three occasions: January 11, 1878 when he delivered his lecture “Liberty”; February 21, 1878 when he delivered his lecture “Individuality”; and January 26, 1885, when he delivered his lecture “Which Way?” You may find more here… freethought-trail.org.

  3. Erik Stoneham says:

    I always try to tell people that Rochester’s history is saturated with events and people that changed the direction of our country. always makes me smile knowing how tolerant and understanding this city was and still is. Awesome read, thank you!!!

  4. @Erik, thank you for reading and for your compliment. It means a lot. Especially on this day.


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