Metro

Frederick Douglass — gone, yes, but not forgotten

Boston Globe Files

After fleeing slavery in 1838, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass settled in New Bedford.

President Trump raised eyebrows Wednesday at a Black History Month event when he seemed to suggest that Frederick Douglass was still alive. The ensuing kerfuffle (which included a now-deleted Twitter account in Douglass’s name trolling Trump) has sparked renewed interest in the famed black abolitionist, and reminded Metro Minute about Douglass’s strong local connections.

After fleeing slavery in 1838, Douglass settled in New Bedford. Boston abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison later became his mentor, although their views diverged.

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But Boston would also test Douglass. In December 1860, ruffians hired by “merchants engaged in the Southern trade” disrupted an antislavery gathering at the Tremont Temple, according to news accounts.

Days later, Douglass delivered a blistering response in “A Plea For Free Speech.” Here are excerpts of that speech:

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“Boston is a great city. . . . Nowhere more than here have the principles of human freedom been expounded. But for the circumstances already mentioned, it would seem almost presumption for me to say anything here about those principles.

“And yet, even here, in Boston, the moral atmosphere is dark and heavy. The principles of human liberty, even I correctly apprehended, find but limited support in this hour of trial. The world moves slowly, and Boston is much like the world. We thought the principle of free speech was an accomplished fact.

“Here, if nowhere else, we thought the right of the people to assemble and to express their opinion was secure. Mr. Garrison had practically asserted the right, and Theodore Parker [the minister and transcendentalist] had maintained it with steadiness and fidelity to the last.

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“But here we are today contending for what we thought we gained years ago. The mortifying and disgraceful fact stares us in the face, that though Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of speech is struck down. No lengthy detail of facts is needed. They are already notorious; far more so than will be wished ten years hence . . .

“The principle must rest upon its own proper basis. And until the right is accorded to the humblest as freely as to the most exalted citizen, the government of Boston is but an empty name, and its freedom a mockery.

“A man’s right to speak does not depend upon where he was born or upon his color. The simple quality of manhood is the solid basis of the right — and there let it rest forever.”

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Smithsonian Folkways was also included.
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