Frederick Douglass’ spirit returns

Today is 138 years to the day (March 1) since the great black American orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, visited Warren in 1876. He had also made one pre-Civil War visit in 1847.

Last Saturday afternoon, my wife and I went to hear Michael Crutcher, a Frederick Douglass impersonator, speak to his audience as if he were gratefully addressing a group of Northern abolitionists in period style and costume.

The historical event was held at Trumbull County’s stately courthouse number one. Spectators could almost imagine stepping back into history for an hour Below is a slightly edited version of my notes from the oration (with commentary in parenthesis):

“My spirit has returned to Warren, Ohio,” Crutcher began. “I am very comfortable visiting Warren, as I consider this area to be a ‘hotbed of abolition.’ “

(This makes sense, since Warren was originally founded by men and women from the enlightened colony of Connecticut, so the founders of our city were also of the same culture. Some parts of Indiana were apparently settled by southerners who migrated up the big river and as a result Douglass was once beaten within an inch of his life for speaking against slavery there.)

“What is a slave?”

“A slave is a person owned by another man.

“A slave is a person whose owner wants to keep him ignorant.

“A slave is a person who is forced to work hard for no compensation.

“I was born a slave and my mother was a slave.

“Apologists for slavery often ask me, ‘Frederick, you were a slave and your life turned out fine what was the worst thing that ever happened to you?

“I always tell them how Master snatched me away from my mother’s arms when I was still a baby and sold mother to a farm in another county. She died when I was eight years old and I only got to see her face a few times, but never in the daytime. To see my face mother risked serious punishment or even death by sneaking away from her plantation on foot – walking all night – just to touch me and hold me for a few dimly lit hours as she had to get back to work on the plantation by daybreak.”

(Critics have impertinently labeled me as one-sided in my discussions of racism and slavery, in spite of the plain fact that there is no valid other side to these abhorrent institutions.)

“I never even knew my own birthday, but my grandmother Betsy once gave me a cake on Valentine’s Day, so I chose Feb. 14 to be my birthday. When grandmother died, that was the last day of my childhood.

“Master sent me to live with his brother in Baltimore where I was to be the playmate of a white boy named Tommy. Tommy’s mother taught us both to read a little until Master’s brother witnessed it.”

(Tommy’s mother caught hell because American slave owners systematically forced their slaves into ignorance.)

“Woman! don’t you know if you teach that little darkie how to read he won’t be fit to be a slave no more? And then he’ll teach the others how to read, and next thing you know they’ll all want their freedom!

“Master didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving me the best lesson I ever got against slavery. I made up my mind right then and there; I was going to learn how to read one way or another. And soon (by the age of 16) I became a slave owner’s worst nightmare. Master even sent me to an infamous ‘slave breaker,’ but I had decided I would never let another man ever beat me again!”

Further comments:

After Douglass escaped to freedom, he chose to stand and fight until every slave was free. Douglass spoke widely against slavery in America and in Europe. He recruited runaway slaves and free black men for the Union Army in the Civil War and advocated fair and equal pay for the black soldiers.

Douglass even met with Abraham Lincoln a few times, but Douglass was not fully satisfied with the Emancipation Proclamation, because it didn’t go far enough to guarantee the rights of former slaves. In hindsight, Douglass was right because it took additional amendments to the constitution as well as several important acts of legislation to complete the promise of freedom for America’s former slaves and their descendants.

And we still have some work to do. On point, I would like to offer a heartfelt thanks to the Civil War 150 Committee of the Sutliff Museum, Trumbull County for their part in bringing back the original culture of enlightenment to the city of Warren. It was a breath of fresh air for my soul.

Herman is a Warren resident.