EXETER — “What to the American slave is the Fourth of July?” once remarked Frederick Douglass to a crowd of abolitionists he was addressing having been asked to share a black person's perspective on Independence Day.
That was the question roughly 70 community members reflected upon Wednesday evening when they came together at the Exeter Historical Society to recite speech delivered by the escaped slave and leading abolitionist in Rochester, New York in 1852.
One by one nearly 40 people stood before the standing-room-only crowd and read a paragraph or two aloud from Douglass' now famous speech.
In the speech, he first praised the Founding Fathers of the United States, but pivoted mid-oration to criticize the same virtues upon which the country was founded while allowing slavery, America's “greatest sin and shame,” to perpetuate unimpeded.
“To (the slave), your celebration is a sham,” Dan Chartrand, owner of Water Street Bookstore, said as he pounded the lectern reciting Douglass' words. “Your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless... your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery... There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
It was the first community reading of Douglass' Fourth of July speech of its kind in Exeter. The reading was presented by the Historical Society, Exeter's Racial Unity Team and the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire (BHTNH), which has held a community reading of the speech in Portsmouth the last three years. BHTNH Executive Director JerriAnne Boggis said readings of the speech were also being held in several other communities across the state.
Boggis said Douglass words' could not be more timely because of the nature of national immigration policies and law enforcement tactics she considers are inhumane.
“A lot of what Frederick Douglass said then is appropriate today,” Boggis said. “We're still living with the legacy of slavery because a lot of the problems from then were not solved in any significant way.”
Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland and became a leader in the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. On July 5, 1852, Douglass was invited by the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, to share what Independence Day meant to the black population at the time.
In his speech, Douglass said, “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” to the abolitionists as a reminder that only some enjoyed independence from Great Britain, while others remained in the bondage of slavery.
The turn in the speech comes, when Douglass, having extolled the seemingly infallibility of the Founding Fathers 76 years into American history, begins sharply admonishing the same founders for not extending the same liberties to his brothers and sisters.
“Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future,” Dr. Maryann Kane said, reciting the speech's pivoting lines. “Firmly believing in the right of their cause, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, most deliberately under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.”
Kane said she decided to take part in the reading because she wanted to connect with community members who were interested in exploring an overlooked moment in history on the Fourth of July.
“It was a reflection of where our country has been and where it can go if we look to both the good and the sins of our past to guide us in the right direction,” she said.
Allyson Ryder, a board member of BHTNH, said having been raised in New Hampshire, learning and understanding a black person's perspective from any historic era was not an integral part of her education.
“We're working really hard to teach the full breadth of what our history is,” Ryder said. “Reading this speech with everyone in the room was so powerful, and as hard as the words are to hear that Frederick Douglass says in the speech, they're important not to ignore.”
Barbara Rimkunas, co-executive director of the Historical Society, said after the popularity of Exeter's reading of Douglass' “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, she hoped it would be the start of a new annual tradition in Exeter.
“Sometimes it's easy to underestimate how much this town values history,” Rimkunas said. “I was expecting half the amount of people, but it caught a lot of people's attention on social media. I'm just astonished when you think about the slavery system Frederick Douglass escaped from, to rise to the top to become such an eloquent man as a speaker to stand up and speak truth to power.”