Frederick Douglass Brings Meaning to the 4th of July
Two days ago I was lucky enough to be able to attend one of the most meaningful Fourth of July events of my life. The Royall House and Slave Quarters held a reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.” My very rough estimate is that more than 150 people showed up for an event at which organizers David Harris and Kyera Singleton expected about 75, based on the seating capacity. The packed room was hot: the historic windows didn’t open, and I’ll admit to a feeling of dismay when printed copies of the speech were distributed: the thing was eleven pages long.
But packed in we were, and the program began. Poet Terry E. Carter began by performing three of his poems. This man and one of his poems is now featured in a mural along the Mystic River. His rhymes and rhythms celebrate, inspire, and excoriate—and always entertain and impress. Following Carter’s reading, David Harris spoke briefly. He told us that Douglass’s speech was being read in 41 different locations in Massachusetts on this holiday, and said that this reading, in the Royall House and Slave Quarters, was especially meaningful. It was the first time the event was held on this site and is slated to become an annual event.
Harris read the first paragraph of the 53-paragraph speech. He was followed by members of the local NAACP reading individual paragraphs, and then community members, myself included, voluntarily took turns to read the remaining paragraphs. Any dismay I felt by the length of the speech quickly dissipated. Douglass’s speech was a riveting denunciation of slavery and injustice, and most specifically of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which in Douglass’s words, made slavery “an institution of the whole United States” even though some states, including Massachusetts and New York State, where Douglass was giving his speech, had made slavery illegal decades earlier.
It was beyond moving to see people of many different races, ages, and accents rise to read this speech aloud, beyond moving to feel that we were coming together to recall a time when one the most obvious and far-reaching examples of injustice in the history of our nation had been institutionalized by the Congress and the Supreme Court at a time when those most severely affected could not even dream of voting. How impossible it must have seemed to Douglass and those who worked with him to ever end this institution that put so much money into the pockets of the powerful. On this Fourth of July, hearing this speech on the grounds of the only remaining example of slave quarters in the northeastern United States, on the grounds of a property that provided the slave-generated funds, through a 1781 bequest, for the creation of Harvard Law School, was for me a reminder that the unjust laws and rulings facing us today as the result of a corrupted and corrupt Supreme Court and a gerrymandered and undemocratically elected Congress can be and will be and SHALL be overcome.