Mark J. Price
Frederick Douglass had never before been invited to speak at a graduation ceremony. When the letter from Hudson, Ohio, arrived at his abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., he greeted it with suspicion.
What were the intentions of the sender? Was it some kind of trick? Was it some kind of trap? After pondering the invitation, Douglass courageously decided to accept, and that is how he came to deliver the 1854 commencement address to literary societies at Hudson’s Western Reserve College, a center of anti-slavery activity and a forerunner of Case Western Reserve University. Today, the campus is home to Western Reserve Academy.
Some Ohio newspapers criticized the college for inviting a black man to speak at the formal event — even if he was one of the greatest orators in American history.
Douglass, 36, was only 16 years removed from slavery when he made the journey to Ohio. He was born in Maryland circa 1818 and escaped to New York in 1838, where he published an abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
The summer heat was stifling July 12 as an audience of 3,000 waited for the distinguished guest beneath a giant tent at the Hudson campus. Seven years before the Civil War, Douglass took the stage and delivered a passionate, two-hour address on slavery and humanity.
“I engage today, for the first time, in the exercises of any college commencement,” Douglass told the assembly. “It is a new chapter in my humble experience. The usual course, at such times, I believe, is to call to the platform men of age and distinction, eminent for eloquence, mental ability and scholarly attainments — men whose high culture, severe training, great experience, large observation and peculiar aptitude for teaching, qualify them to instruct even the already well instructed, and to impart a glow, a luster, to the acquirements of those who are passing from the halls of learning to the broad theater of active life. To no such high endeavor as this, is your humble speaker fitted; and it was with much distrust and hesitation that he accepted the invitation, so kindly and perseveringly given, to occupy a portion of your attention here today.”
Although it was a sweltering day and the audience sat for hours on seats without backs, Douglass commanded the attention of the large crowd.
“He has a rich, full, mellow voice, capable of ranging through a wide scale, and of expressing every variety of emotion,” reported the Ohio Observer, a Hudson newspaper. “There were in his discourse eloquent passages, keen hits, clear and cogent statements. We noticed no bad grammar, no exaggerated metaphor — none of that sort of talk, and those expressions which the public have appropriated to his race.”
John Teesdale, publisher of the Summit County Beacon, was equally impressed with the address.
“The Manhood of the Black Man, or African, was the theme of Douglass,” Teesdale wrote. “To say that he discussed it ably would convey but a faint idea of the power displayed. The address was written, and in point of scholarship and literary merit it will rank — should it be published — with the most successful efforts of the ripest scholars. Yet, Douglass is an uneducated, or rather, a self-educated man.”
Douglass also gave talks in Cuyahoga Falls and Akron that week, but those addresses were not preserved. As Teesdale had hoped, Lee, Mann & Co. of Rochester, N.Y., published the Hudson speech in an 81-page tract later that year. The passages captivated listeners in 1854 and continue to resonate today.
On race relations, Douglass told the Hudson crowd:
“The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age. In the solution of this question, the scholars of America will have to take an important and controlling part. This is the moral battlefield to which their country and their God now call them. In the eye of both, the neutral scholar is an ignoble man. Here, a man must be hot, or be accounted cold, or, perchance, something worse than hot or cold. The lukewarm and the cowardly will be rejected by earnest men on either side of the controversy.”
On basic humanity, Douglass affirmed:
“Men instinctively distinguish between men and brutes. Common sense itself is scarcely needed to detect the absence of manhood in a monkey, or to recognize its presence in a Negro. His speech, his reason, his power to acquire and to retain knowledge, his heaven-erected face, his habitudes, his hopes, his fears, his aspirations, his prophecies, plant between him and the brute creation, a distinction as eternal as it is palpable.”
On slavery and oppression, Douglass noted:
“Pride and selfishness, combined with mental power, never want for a theory to justify them—and when men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression. Ignorance and depravity, and the inability to rise from degradation to civilization and respectability, are the most usual allegations against the oppressed. The evils most fostered by slavery and oppression are precisely those which slaveholders and oppressors would transfer from their system to the inherent character of their victims. Thus the very crimes of slavery become slavery’s best defense.”
On enlightened society, Douglass concluded:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am not superstitious, but I recognize an arm stronger than any human arm, and an intelligence higher than any human intelligence, guarding and guiding this anti-slavery cause, through all the dangers and perils that beset it, and making even auxiliaries of enemies, and confounding all worldly wisdom for its advancement. Let us trust that arm — let us confide in that intelligence — in conducting this movement; and whether it shall be ours to witness the fulfillment of our hopes, the end of American slavery or not, we shall have the tranquil satisfaction of having faithfully adhered to eternal principles of rectitude, and may lay down life in the triumphant faith, that those principles will ultimately prevail.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.