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/ Douglass and Brocktonians

Brockton is a city of diversity, whose cultural roots reach many parts of the world.  Amazingly, many chapters in the life of Frederick Douglass intersect with those roots, and our knowledge of that history can help create common ground and pathways -  first to understand, and then to address the political and social challenges of today.

CAPE VERDE:  as a slave in Maryland, Frederick Douglass would gaze out at the ocean and sailing ships and dream of taking to the water and being free.  He worked for several years as a caulker in the shipyards of Baltimore.  When he finally made his escape, he put on the typical seaman’s clothes – a red shirt and tarpaulin hat and a black cravat, tied in a sailor’s knot.  In this disguise, and with “borrowed” papers, he headed north by train to Philadelphia and settled eventually in New Bedford, Massachusetts.    During the peak of the whaling industry, sailors and shipbuilders of all colors were paid well for their services.  In the 18th and early 19th century, crews were drawn from men of many backgrounds, including many skilled tradesmen from the Azores and Cape Verde islands.  According to a posting by the New Bedford Historical Society, “Cape Verdeans acquired old whaling ships....and eventually they came to own almost all that remained of the New Bedford fleet.”   It is quite likely that Douglass worked alongside these Cape Verdean immigrants.  It is also interesting that his first public speech in front of a white audience was give in 1841 in Nantucket, another major center of the whaling and shipbuilding industry.  Many historians believe that this speech was the catalyst for Douglass’ brilliant speaking career.


IRELAND:  Frederick Douglass believed in equality for all - men, women, black, white, all people, whatever race or religion – and his experience as a slave spurred him on to travel the world promoting his beliefs. Douglass traveled to Ireland and Britain in the 1840s, arriving in Ireland in 1845 at the cusp of the devastating Famine. In total, he spent two years traveling around this part of the world, and one of the cities he visited was Waterford, in October 1845. Douglass spoke in the Large Room in the City Hall, on the evening of Thursday 9 October 1845, and it appears that he arrived in Waterford from Wexford on 8 October and left for Cork the day after his speech.  


VETERANS:  President Lincoln called on Frederick Douglass to help enlist free black men into the Army during the Civil War.  Two of the soldiers who served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment - whose story was told in the movie "Glory" -  were Mr. Douglass' own two sons.  Mr. Douglass lobbied the President hard for equal pay for white and black soldiers. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw inspired his unit to conduct a boycott until this pay inequality was rectified.  There is a memorial bronze relief sculpture to the 54th on Boston Common. 


WOMEN:  When 300 women gathered in Seneca Falls, New York for the very first women's rights convention, Frederick Douglass was one of only 40 men to attend.  The "Declaration of Sentiments" drawn up at that convention contained eleven resolutions and the ninth stated it was a woman's duty to secure the right to vote.


In an editorial published that same year, 1848, in The North Star, he wrote:  " respect to political rights..........there can be no reason in the world for denying to women the elective franchise."


HAITI:  Because of his service as Minister to Haiti, Frederick Douglass was invited to be the keynote speaker at the dedication of the Haitian Pavilion at the World’s Fair held in Jackson Park, Chicago, in 1893.  This exhibition celebrated the 400 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage, and is often referred to as the “World Columbia Exposition”.    Two cities fought for the fair – New York and Chicago.  A New York reporter wrote with disdain that the people of Chicago were so full of hot air promises that it was a “windy city” – and this phrase, originally meant as an insult, is used to describe Chicago to this day.


CIVIL RIGHTS:  One month after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass called this the first step towards healing a nation scarred by the institution of slavery.


“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”


“We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated… I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.”


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The Marin Independent Journal reported on the first celebration of National Negro History week in February 1950, in Marin City, CA.  It became an annual event, and inspired the creation of two quilts.  One was of Harriet Tubman. Pictured to the left is the one of Frederick Douglass giving his famous speech on the meaning of the Fourth of July to the slave.  The quilt was finished in 1953 by Bernice Vissman, Martha Johnson, Essie McKee, Detta Wright, Birdie Smith and Betty DePrado.


Negro History Club of Marin City and Sausalito. Frederick Douglass Quilt. 1953. 

From University of Louisville Archives and Records Center, Kentucky Quilt Project. Published in The Quilt Index,



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