The day after Independence Day in 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech in Rochester, N.Y., about the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating its freedom when millions of its people were bound by slavery.
On Monday, 165 years later, dozens gathered on Boston Common to hear a collective recitation of Douglass’s famous oration, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”
For young Evan James Mackey, the speech brought one of his favorite storybooks to life. The 5-year-old sat on his dad’s lap as he listened, clutching a copy of “Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History.”
“Slaves back in the day were not allowed to read, and would be disciplined if they were caught reading and writing,” said James Mackey, Evan James’s father. “This is important for [Evan James] because I want him to know how it’s a privilege to be able to read.”
A crowd lined up to read a portion of the speech, and copies were handed out to listeners so they could follow along. After a slow start, the line grew until it stretched around the audience — people of all ages and backgrounds eager for a chance to deliver a paragraph from the speech.
The reading was organized by Mass Humanities, a nonprofit group in Northampton that supports programs that use history, literature, and other humanities to improve civic life.
Other sponsors included the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and Community Change Inc., a Boston group that promotes racial justice and equity.
Rose Sackey-Milligan, program officer for Mass Humanities, said Monday marked the ninth annual reading of the speech, which typically draws between 150 and 400 people.
“I think it’s important for people, all Americans in this democracy, to reflect on where we are as a country,” Sackey-Milligan said. “It’s a time for us as a nation to be expressing and celebrating the gains that we have made, but also to think about what is left to be done.”
The event opened with a performance by local vocalist Paula Elliott, who sung “Brown Baby” by Oscar Brown Jr. As the song set the tone for the event — “Brown baby, it makes me glad you gonna have things that I never had” — the crowd quieted and volunteers waited for their turn to read.
In his speech, Douglass drew parallels between the Founding Fathers’ courage in speaking out against England’s oppression and that needed to fight the evils of slavery.
“Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it,” the speech reads. “Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? . . . There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
Some read their portions of the speech slowly and softly, others with passion, emphasizing resonate words and earning a round of applause. But no one drew louder cheers than Nailah and Ishmael Hazelwood, two of the youngest readers.
“I learned a lot — Frederick Douglass is a very powerful speaker. He makes sense,” said Ishmael, 12, from Milton. “He’s a great speaker and he’s . . . I guess you could say he’s humble about his speech.”
Nailah, 8, agreed with her brother — she was a little nervous to speak in front of everyone, but said she enjoyed the experience.
“Go where you may, search where you will . . . for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival,” she read, as those around her helped her with more challenging words.
When she finished, the crowd roared its approval.
Nailah and Ishmael’s father, Greg Hazelwood, an African-American history teacher at Brockton High School, said he felt an obligation to teach his children about the topic.
Douglass’s speech was so powerful because it held a mirror to the nation’s values, underscoring the cruel irony of the independence they were celebrating.
“I think we need the mirror today,” Hazelwood said.