Frederick Douglass, who escaped from being enslaved and became a prominent abolitionist, orator, writer, and social reformer, was invited to speak at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. The Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited him to speak on July 4. Instead, he spoke on the fifth in protest of the national holiday and to commemorate July 5, 1827 — the end of slavery in New York (Travel + Leisure).
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
• Share parts of the “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” this weekend as part of your festivities.
• Create an annual tradition to share and reflect on these words with your loved ones.
• Consider: What does freedom mean to you? How do Frederick Douglass’ words reflect current times?
The speech, which is included in full at the link below, was delivered at a pivotal part of American history. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had just been passed, which gave the federal government authority to capture allegedly enslaved people and return them to their captors, even if they were in a free state (History). The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin had just been published, and the upcoming presidential election was about to happen (Time). Together, these events would all provide the soil for the Civil War and the civil rights movement that’s still unfolding today.
Spoken nearly 200 years ago, the words known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” are a scathing critique of the failed promises of the Declaration of Independence to Black people enslaved. It acknowledges the contributions of the Founding Fathers while noting the hypocrisy of these ideals with the institution of slavery (NMAAHC). Much of Frederick Douglass’ words still ring true today. America, unfortunately, has still not lived up to its promises to all people.
Read Full Speech. Alternatively, you can watch five young descendants of Frederick Douglass read the entire speech in this video.