Plain Talk From A Black Leader


August 25, 1991|By Carleton Jones

In the hot, hot August of 1891, wagons and buggies filled wit black families parade out through the dust toward Baltimore's Irving Park, a traditional gathering place for blacks attending camp meetings, sermons and prayer.

One buggy in the long chain is more elaborate than normal. Inside, next to men in frock coats and stovepipe hats, is a huge black man with a boldly sculptured face, a face seamed with years. That man is Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and orator who is now in his 70s. On the ride to the park he is remembering Baltimore and its harbor in the days when he called this city home.

He is remembering the days back in the 1830s when he was a young man and "used to see those earnest workers in Strawberry Alley on Fell's Point . . . Joseph Wilson, William Douglass, William Watkins, Philip Scott, Lewis Wells, Mingo Elsby, Philip League and Joseph Young." How do we know that? Because he will soon say so as he talks on "temperance" day to the huge throng, assembled to do honor to the war on liquor.

How will he speak to this black audience, hundreds of whom never knew slavery, throngs whose children know only from grandparents how things went in early days? He is well equipped to speak in front of crowds, for he has mastered an eloquently biblical prose, a balanced tongue that echoes with clarity. A line of prose by Douglass was a sort of instant spoken literature, anecdotal and as unmistakable as one by Walt Whitman or Abraham Lincoln. A Douglass speech was filled with "you and me" feeling, with exhortations that drew his audience into direct personal touch in a way that perhaps Whitman and Lincoln missed.

He first announces that he has never made a temperance speech and doesn't intend to start -- a typical example of honest, flat-footed Douglass speechmaking.

He continues, tracing the great legal changes since manumission as well as the long road ahead. "Fifty-three years ago, Massachusetts was as clearly pro-slavery as Maryland, and when we went from one place to another we had to go in the 'Jim Crow' car," he says.

Blacks today have a chance to "grasp the blessings of the world" and use them, he tells the crowd. "If we do not use this world right, what guarantee is there that we will use the other one right?"

Black progress since those early years, he says, should not be measured from the heights of white achievement but from the depths, from "240 years of absolute bondage and a long life of barbarism behind that. There is where we came from," only to be "set free under the most unfavorable circumstances . . . by military means for punitive purposes, not to punish us but to punish somebody else." By contrast, he notes that "when the Russian slaves were emancipated they were given three acres of land each and tools to work with, but we were turned loose without a hoe or a hatchet."

Every look at nature and man proves equality, he says, quoting a parable: "Temperance is good, but whisky proves that we are all of one race, for it has just the same effect upon a Negro as it does upon the white man. If you never drink you will never be drunk."

Continuing, he says, "One of the curses of our race is poverty. Money is not exactly the root of all evil. We must acquire property and we must leave something. Every dollar laid up is one day ahead. One hundred dollars is a hundred days ahead."

In elemental, poetic language, he expresses lofty goals. "Earth, air and sea all preach to us of what we should do and know. The earth has no prejudice. The fields will grow just as good a crop for a colored man who will work as for anyone else. The sun shines for all and the rain descends for all."

He knew that the purity of sacrifice and non-violent protest could conquer. "I would rather be a slave and have my leg fettered than be the master and have the other end of the chain on my conscience," he declares to his audience.

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