Creating a holiday to honor Douglass

September 02, 2000|By Gregory Kane

WHEN MONDAY rolls around, while the rest of you are stoking up the grill for that cookout or heading to the beach and otherwise celebrating Labor Day, I'll be marking what I have unilaterally and quite unofficially renamed "Frederick Douglass Day."

Why not? Labor Day celebrates America's working class and proletariat. Douglass was a slave. You can't get more proletariat and working class than that. He's a perfect symbol for the holiday.

Douglass was born in Maryland one February day in 1818 - or thereabouts. He was raised in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore and worked in Baltimore's shipyards during his teen years. He escaped slavery in 1838 and went on to become an abolitionist, orator, author, newspaper editor, adviser to Abraham Lincoln and other presidents, diplomat and marshal of the District of Columbia.

He was a scholar who taught himself five languages and how to play the violin. He fought for universal suffrage and women's right to vote long before it became popular. Did I mention he was a Republican? He died of a heart attack in his Anacostia home in southeast Washington on Feb. 20, 1895.

He was the most outstanding American of his century.

You read that right. I didn't say "the most outstanding African-American" or "the most outstanding black American" or "the most outstanding minority American." I said the most outstanding American, period, regardless of color or gender. End of discussion.

Those who would nominate others - Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Edison - should perhaps be reminded that others didn't face the obstacles Douglass faced to reach the pinnacle he attained. Put some of old Fred's impediments in the way of Lincoln or Jefferson, and we might never have heard of those guys.

It was Douglass, more so than Lincoln or Jefferson, who embodied and personified the principles of freedom and equality most Americans claim to cherish. African-American historian Lerone Bennett, in his latest book, "Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream," even suggested that we remove Lincoln from the pantheon of American heroes and replace him with those white and black abolitionists who forced his hand on the slavery question.

It was Douglass and the abolitionists who browbeat Lincoln until he finally agreed to accept black soldiers into the Union ranks during the Civil War. As the war approached its end, the reluctant Lincoln was forced to admit, in a letter of Sept. 12, 1864, to Isaac Schermerhorn, that those soldiers and the blacks serving the Union as spies, scouts and laborers were the reason the North would win the struggle.

What thanks do we give Douglass? Talbot County has a piddling historical marker designating his birthplace on some back road that, from reading the inscription, the county seemed almost embarrassed to put up. Baltimore has a high school named for him and a monument on the campus of Morgan State University, but should have so much more considering Douglass' impact on the nation. His Anacostia home is a national historic monument, but even blacks who were within blocks of the place had no idea what it was when I asked for directions on a recent visit.

Americans should know more about this guy. Below are some of his more notable quotes, to peruse Monday as you sink your teeth into that barbecued rib.

"I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."

"No, I make no pretension to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of the true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins."

"I know no class of my fellow men, however just, enlightened, and humane, which can be wisely and safely trusted absolutely with the liberties of any other class."

"The man who is right is a majority. He who has God and conscience on his side has a majority against the universe. Though he does not represent the present state, he represents the future state. If he does not represent what we are, he represents what we ought to be."

"When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question."

"The American people have this lesson to learn: That where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."

Happy Frederick Douglass Day.

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