What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

Young portrait of Frederick Douglass
A young portrait of Frederick Douglass.

Public domain

Celebrate the Fourth of July at the Frederick Douglass NHS

Where: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (1411 W Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20020)
When: Thursday, July 4, 2024, 11 am - 5 pm

Visitors are invited to begin their July 4th holiday in a thoughtful and reflective way at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Michael Crutcher will present “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? ”at 11 a.m. on the front porch of Frederick Douglass’s home, Cedar Hill, on July 4.

Following the speech, DC Strings Workshop will perform selections popular in Douglass’s era. Visitors are invited to have their photos taken with “Frederick Douglass,” and to a first-floor walk-through of the Douglass home which contains more objects belonging to Frederick Douglass than anywhere in America.

A Stinging Critique

Taking the platform at Corinthian Hall, Frederick Douglass did not even know his age. Somewhere in his thirties, this titan of history was standing in Rochester, New York to do what he did best – use his words to craft America’s future. In 1852, Douglass was invited to offer a Fourth of July Address to a gathered audience. He had made quite the name for himself over recent years. Traveling across the United States, he had roused audiences far and wide. The roar of his voice called millions to action rather than complacency. The fire in his eyes left many awestruck, as one witness described him as “majestic in his wrath.” Now, he had risked his own life to publish the evils of enslavement. He gave names, dates, and locations. He spoke so much truth – many could not handle it and on the advice of allies, he fled internationally where he railed for nearly two years against America’s dastardly addiction to trafficking in human flesh.

For this Fourth of July 1852, America’s most famous Black man was asked to do what he had done many times before: stand on the stage of Rochester’s Corinthian Hall and speak his mind. He agreed, but on one condition. He would speak on the fifth of July, not the fourth.
Original Handbill Invitation
The original Handbill Invitation

Courtesy of University of Michigan, Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1848-1868 Collection

A Speech for This and Future Generations

1852 was an election year. Long-time allies, the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society extended the invitation. It was the 25th Anniversary of New York’s abolition. Monday, July 5th, at 10:00am was bound to be an amazing moment.

The mighty Douglass – self emancipated husband, father, and world-renowned activist - arose confident, committed, and collected. As he pondered the meaning of the Fourth of July to America, he spoke not only to that audience in Corinthian Hall on July 5, 1852. He spoke across time and space, to generations he would never see.

Continuing a decades long tradition, a Douglass actor will yet again bring those words to life on July 4, 2024!

Washington Post Newspaper article and photos from 1973
An article from the Washington Post Newspaper featuring acclaimed actor James Earl Jones delivering Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site on July 4, 1973. An estimated 500 people were in attendance.


Celebrating the Fourth at Cedar Hill

For over fifty years, citizens have made the pilgrimage to Frederick Douglass's estate known as "Cedar Hill," where speakers have quoted, recited, or performed the words from the great abolitionist and orator's most famous speech. For some, celebrating freedom means celebrating defiance.

Back in 1852 when Douglass spoke at Corinthian Hall, he was "defiant" when he criticized the divide between the founding ideas of liberty and the institution of slavery. But still, he found hope and encouraged his audience to see the U.S. Constitution as a document that could offer and provide "glorious liberty" for all of its citizens.

How do you choose to celebrate freedom?

Last updated: June 7, 2024

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1411 W Street SE
Washington, DC 20020


This phone number is to the ranger offices at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

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