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)…
Douglass’ address was delivered at Corinthian Hall , 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 , 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 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and the irony was not lost on Douglass. He told his audience:
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? 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…
Douglass, and others later on, would argue that the Constitution could, and should, be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery.
Frederick Douglass wrote several books about 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:
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.
Tags: anti-slavery, civil rights, Corinthian Hall, Corinthian Street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Isaac and Amy Post, Plymouth Avenue, Rochester, Rochester NY, Sophia Street, Susan B. Anthony, underground railroad, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?
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.