Community Reading: Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

The Community Reading

“Above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wails of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today, more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”

-Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

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1 hour, 29 minutes, 50 seconds

A community reading, sponsored by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Introduction by David Blight.

Although many Americans identify July 4 as their Independence Day, many others look at this date with an entirely different context. In 1852, the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society asked Frederick Douglass to deliver a Fourth of July address. Although he accepted the invitation to speak, he insisted that he deliver his address on July 5: both because this had become regular practice in New York’s Black community, and perhaps in part because slave auctions had often been held on July 4. When making this speech, Douglass even asked his audience, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?” Today one of Douglass’s most famous addresses, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” challenges audiences to think critically about the meaning of freedom and equality.

In the months and years leading up to July Fourth celebrations in 1852, Americans would have been engaging with difficult, yet critical, conversations about liberty and equality. Abolitionists, who had been fighting to abolish slavery for decades, began to make use of more militant tactics. Free Black communities and their white allies led protests to fight back against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which in many cases utilized force and violence. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work Uncle Tom’s Cabin, released in March of 1852, sparked national conversation. Voters may have been thinking about the election that would occur in November of 1852.

Frederick Douglass fought not only as an abolitionist, but a suffragist. A public letter written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton was read at Douglass’s Funeral in 1895. Its concluding lines read, “Frederick Douglass is not dead! His grand character will long be an object lesson in our national history; his lofty sentiments of liberty, justice and equality...must influence and inspire many coming generations!” It should be noted that Douglass and Cady-Stanton had a complex relationship – highlighted in their disagreements over the 15th Amendment (for more context, please read the article linked here). The year 2020 holds incredible significance in voting rights history. This year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 15th Amendment. Both anniversaries remind us that the fight for independence and equality did not end in the 18th century - a theme highlighted in Douglass’ speech.

We thank you for taking the time to watch this community reading of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Source: Blight, David. “Chapter 13: By the Rivers of Babylon” of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster: New York, 2018).

Read the speech

River Campus Libraries of the University of Rochester has a digitized version of the speech which you can access by clicking this link.

Meet the Readers

Below you will find a list of our readers in order of appearance. We would like to once again thank all who were willing to participate in this project. It would not have been possible without you!

Name Affiliation
David Blight Yale University
Sylvia Cyrus Association for the Study of African American Life and History
Jewell A. Newton The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Brent Leggs National Trust for Historic Preservation; African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
Todd L. Sterling River Road African American Museum
Theodore White National Mall and Memorial Parks
Tiya Miles Harvard University
Kathie Marsh Family Heritage Museum; State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota
Jessica Bowes Fort Stanwix National Monument
Jon Meade Associate Regional Director, Region 1 (Northeast), National Park Service
Adam Fracchia University of Maryland, College Park
Steve T. Phan Civil War Defenses of Washington
Susan Tamulevich Custom House Maritime Museum
James Bullock Fort Mose Historical Society
Darion Miller Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Richard Bell University of Maryland
Suhey Ortega Research Fellow, National Park Service
Maurice Imhoff 102nd USCT Black History Group
Catherine Bache Student, University of Pennsylvania
Reggie Chapple Acting Assistant Director, Parnerships and Civic Engagement, National Park Service
Ray Hill Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area
Wes Jackson Brooklyn Historical Society
Chad Hoing Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Yvette Madison, Sierra Hill, Icis Donald, Alana Donald, Pastor Ken Arnett First Cambria AME Zion Church, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
David Vela Deputy Director, Exercising the Authority of the Director, National Park Service
Eh Wei Participant in Spoke'n Revolutions program, Triangle Bikeworks
Liza Stearns National Parks of Boston
Lonnie G. Bunch III Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Elizabeth Rankin-Fulcher Black Women's Leadership Caucus, Inc.
Betty Campbell John Rankin House Historic Site
Merrill Kohlhofer National Parks of Boston
Brittany Webb Booker T. Washington National Monument
Allison Gregory, Jamel Miller, and Rose Archer Rokeby Museum
Fatimah Purvis Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Dr. C. James Trotman Frederick Douglass Institute, West Chester University
Amadu Shardow New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
Rochelle Riley City of Detroit Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship
Robert Stanton Former Director, National Park Service
Maria Tinker Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site
Jo Elizabeth Butler Founder, Ethiopian Children's Appeal
Jan da Silva New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
Karen Jones Meadows Spiritual & Cultural Liaison
Maureen Lavelle Death Valley National Park
Michael Allen Retired, National Park Service/Allen Consultants
Joanna Grace Farmer Building Community Capacity, LLC.
Ellen E. Endslow Chester County Historic Center West Chester, Pennsylvania
Frank Toland Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Gerald McWorter (Abdul Alkalimat) Great-Great Grandson of Frank McWorter, New Philadelphia Association
Joseph McGill Magnolia Plantation and Gardens & Founder, Slave Dwelling Project
Ranger Angela Crenshaw Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center
Claire Schuler Tuskegee Airman National Historic Site
Margarete Schuler National Park Service Volunteer
Rose Fennell Deputy Regional Director, Region 1 (Northeast), National Park Service
Ted Johnson Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
Benjamin Skolnik Freedom House Museum, Office of Historic Alexandria
Joy Harjo 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States
Sherry Robinson Svekis Angola Maroon Community Site
Liz Hokanson Manassas National Battlefield Park
ER Shipp Professor, Morgan State University
Matthew Pinsker House Divided Project at Dickinson College
Kofi Elijah Whitehead College Student
Karsonya Wise Whitehead Professor, Radio Host
Ruth Bradley Cayuga County, New York, Historian
Amir Elisha Whitehead High School Senior
Denise DeLucia Women's Rights National Historical Park
Nila Curry Emory Fellowship UMC
Ryan O'Connell George Washington Carver National Monument
Ivan Henderson The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Debbie-Ann Paige Public Historian
Eric W. Logan Mount Hope Cemetery
Lisa Stewart Garrison Willits Book Trust Committee, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting(Society of Friends)
Kimberly Szewczyk Harriet Tubman National Historical Park
Kenthedo Robinson Playwright, Crystal Image Performing Arts Company
Professor Vincent Stringer Open Church of Maryland
John McCaskill Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Lenwood O. Sloan Commonwealth Monument Project
Leroy T. Hopkins Jr. PhD. African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania
Ted Shaw Professor of Law, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Leon Wilson Museum of African American History, Boston & Nantucket
Roy E. Finkenbine University of Detroit Mercy
Marvin S. Robinson III Quindaro Ruins/UGRR Exercise 2021
Amanda Gorman Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the United States

Last updated: July 12, 2021