Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818, the son of an enslaved woman and an unknown white man. When he escaped North to freedom in 1838, he changed his name from Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and launched a new life.
In 1845, he published his first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which became a best seller in the United States and was translated into several languages. He went on to advise President Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of Black soldiers during the Civil War and continued to work for equality until his death.
By the time of his death in 1895, Douglass had lived a diverse career as an orator, writer, publisher, politician, entrepreneur, political activist, counselor to presidents as well as national and international celebrity.
Douglass’ capacity for eloquent oratory would help to irreversibly transform America before, during and well after the Civil War years. His controversial speeches resonate in a new found light in “Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn” (Akashic Books; $15.95).
Theodore Hamm, the chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in New York City, has edited a book of original source material that compiles a number of speeches Douglass delivered in the Brooklyn, which until 1898 was an independent municipality in New York. Most prominent are the speeches the abolitionist gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Plymouth Church and other leading institutions in Brooklyn.
In an introductory essay, Hamm examines the intricate ties between Douglass and Brooklyn abolitionists.
“As a founder and editor (from 2000-2013) of the Brooklyn Rail, I became immersed in the borough’s storied past and its glamorous yet conflicted present,” he said.
“Though still quite substantial, Brooklyn’s Black population today is threatened by the warp-speed gentrification taking place throughout the borough. This dynamic spurred me to look back to the efforts of African Americans to establish their initial foothold during Brooklyn’s formative decades in the mid-19th century,” Hamm added.
“And the figure l kept coming across was the great Frederick Douglass. Douglass never lived in Brooklyn, but many of his closest allies — including Reverend James and Elizabeth Gloucester, Henry Ward Beecher Theodore Tilton — called it home,” he added.
The speeches Douglass gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Plymouth Church and many other leading institutions invariably sparked both excitement and controversy. The city’s leading lights, including Walt Whitman, Beecher, and Black abolitionists like the Gloucesters, turned out-and the city’s leading pro-slavery Brooklyn Daily — regularly issued fiery denunciations of Douglass’ anti-racist declarations.
Hamm also offers brief chapter introductions and annotations that fill in the historical context.
“As I read through of Douglass’ brilliant orations — about slavery, his friends John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, and Reconstruction – as well as the hostile response found in the Eagle and elsewhere, I began to see that Brooklyn’s reactions to this central figure told a larger about race relations in the growing city,” he said.
“Rather than narrate the entire story, I decided to let Douglass’ dazzling words, as well as examples of the Eagle’s stunning attacks, speak for themselves. In general, simply provide the relevant introductory context for each speech along with any necessary annotations. But my own introductory chapter also traces Douglass’ many connections to Brooklyn, highlighting the pivotal role that the city’s abolitionists played in supporting John Brown’s historic Harpers Ferry raid,” Hamm said.
This timely volume present Douglass’ towering voice in a way that sounds anything but dated.
“While the legacy of the Civil War may still haunt Brooklyn today, the spirit of Frederick Douglass endures,” he said. “And my hope is that this collection will help bring him back to life.”