Category Archives: Frederick Douglass

Douglass Day 2023

Like most enslaved people, Frederick Douglass did not know his date of birth. He assumed he was born in 1818. Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14. The first Douglass Day was observed in 1897.

Planning is underway to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In 1852, Douglass famously asked: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” In 2023, descendants of slaves are asking the same question.

In December, Philadelphia250 announced the winners of its “Leave a Legacy” competition. The three finalists will each receive $250,000. The projects focus on immigrants, Special Olympics, and toys for children. Philadelphia250, without a single historian on its staff or board of directors, claims they are “setting the stage for Philly’s most high-profile event in decades.” African Americans make up 40 percent of the City’s population but they will play a bit part in official celebrations.

Philadelphia250 whitewashing the country’s origin story is of a piece with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection of the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American studies. To honor Douglass’ legacy of resistance and agitation, I will file Right-to-Know requests to try to find out why the organization that is planning Philadelphia’s Fourth of July semiquincentennial celebration excluded Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved valet, Robert Hemings, who was with him at Declaration (Graff) House where Jefferson wrote the nation’s founding document. The nonprofit is not subject to Pennsylvania’s open records law but some of its board members are.

Still in his early teens, James Forten was a powder boy during the Revolutionary War. The Museum of the American Revolution’s new exhibition, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” chronicles the life of this revolutionary figure who was present at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776.

Like Forten, Crispus Attucks, the first person to die in the American Revolution, and Cyrus Bustill, who served in the Continental Army, are invisible to Philadelphia250.

George Washington’s enslaved valet and aide-de-camp, William Lee, who is depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” is not represented.

Black Revolutionary War patriots are not honored by Philadelphia250. Instead, they awarded Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse $250,000 to teach children about “revolutionary action figures.” The action figures include wannabe political candidate Ya Fav Trashman.

You can’t make this stuff up. The struggle continues.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

In an Independence Day speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

The world will come to Philadelphia in 2026 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote that rather than celebrate slaveholders (34 of the 56 Signers, including Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves), we should celebrate resistance to slavery as personified by Douglass.

The renowned orator’s presence in Philadelphia dates back to his escape from bondage. He arrived by steamboat from Wilmington in 1838. We can bring Frederick Douglass to life by staging public readings of his iconic speech at places and sites associated with the abolitionist, including Independence Hall, Mother Bethel AME Church, Concert Hall, the Union League of Philadelphia and Camp William Penn. Douglass was delivering a lecture at National Hall when the news came about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

At the same time, we should heed the advice that Douglass gave a Black activist shortly before his death: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Agitation means we resist Philadelphia insiders who presume to tell us how the United States Semiquincentennial should be commemorated. We should follow the blueprint of the July 4th Coalition which, in 1976, rallied between 30,000 and 40,000 people to protest the lack of diversity in official celebrations and the whitewashing of history.

Read my full op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer.