Frederick Douglass Homily
Marjorie D. Grevious’s sermon for the Racial Healing and Reconciliation Eucharist on February 4th, 2022 at St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN.
I am grateful to my dear seminary brother Rev. Craig Lemming for the invitation to be here today. I am so honored and humbled to be here this first Friday of Black History Month to speak on the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey later changed his name to Douglass after claiming his freedom. He was a great orator, writer, abolitionist, minister and statesman. Even after the civil war ended and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, he continued to fight for human rights and equality, including women’s rights.
Frederick Douglass taught us the power of telling our stories. Sharing his own lived experiences and truth in three published autobiographies. The power of story ignites us, illuminates understanding, and invites us to take necessary actions towards justice and human rights for all people. He knew the power of words. Words read to oneself for expansion and growth, the force of the spoken word to open minds, and the ability of the written word to change hearts. His autobiographies share his firsthand account of his experience as an enslaved black man in America experiencing his first taste of freedom from learning to read, his escape from enslavement, and his journey in early movements of social and racial justice. His words influenced presidents, moved the anti-slavery movement forward and continues to inspire us today. I dare say he was a prophet foreshadowing times to come while shedding light on the harsh realities of his time, offering guidance towards freedom and equality.
Born in 1818 to an enslaved woman named Harriet Bailey and a slave overseer, he was taken from his mother as an infant as was the practice then. He was raised by his grandmother until he was sent to another plantation at the age of 6. At the age of 8 he went to Baltimore which he later recounted as being almost as good as free compared to life on a plantation. The wife of his slave owner taught him the alphabet and later to read. Young Frederick than began to share his knowledge with other enslaved people and was finally stopped by his slave owner, whose wife then began hiding all reading materials from him. He would later write: “’Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.’ I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.” end quote
After getting in trouble for teaching his fellow enslaved people to read he was given over to a brutal slave-breaker who beat him severely on a regular basis. He would later recount that this time of his life broke his body, soul and spirit. He eventually fought back against the severe cruelty, recounting in his first autobiography, – quote “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” He eventually claimed his freedom, escaping at the age of 19 with the love and support of Anna Murray, a free black woman who would later become his wife and life partner in his work as an abolitionist. They settled in New Bedford Massachusetts where they began attending abolitionist meetings. There he met William Lloyd Garrison, a noted journalist and abolitionist. After hearing Douglass share his story of enslavement and escape, Garrison encouraged Douglass to go on a speaking tour, eventually becoming a leader in the anti-slavery movement. Douglass joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination first established in New York City, which counted among its members Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. He became a licensed minister in 1839, which helped him to refine his oratorical skills. He held various positions, including steward, Sunday-school superintendent, and sexton. In 1840, Douglass delivered a speech in Elmira, New York, then a station on the Underground Railroad, in which a black congregation would form years later, becoming the region’s largest church in 1940.
In 1843 Douglass had joined the American Anti-Slavery Society’s ‘Hundred Conventions’ project, a 6-month tour across America. His hard-earned freedom did not save him from several violent attacks by those vehemently against the anti-slavery movement. In one such incident his hand was so severely broken that it could not heal properly, and he never regained full use of it. In 1845 he published his first and most well-known autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”. He wrote, “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.”
He also noted, “Thus is slavery the enemy of both the slave and the slaveholder.”
He traveled to Europe where he was inspired by Irish Nationalist, Daniel O’Connell, gave one of his most famous speeches in Great Britain, called the London Reception Speech, where he stated, “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?… I need not lift up the veil by giving you any experience of my own. Everyone that can put two ideas together, must see the most fearful results from such a state of things…”
This quote makes me think of right now in our own times as we look at having the largest prison population in the world which disproportionately affects black and brown people. The disproportionate effects of the ongoing pandemic on our country’s most vulnerable and the long-term generational effects of systemic-induced poverty on people of color. As Douglass said, we must see the most fearful results from such a state of things. The power of his words still speaks to our lived reality, calling us into action towards justice and equality.
Upon his return to America, in 1847 Frederick Douglass founded his own abolitionist newspaper, called The North Star. He wrote about and became involved in women’s rights, namely women’s right to vote. He was the only African American to attend the Seneca Fall Convention, a gathering of women’s rights activists held in New York in 1848. There he spoke, “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” This is especially telling 174 years later at a time when our president is right now today considering the appointment of the first black female supreme court justice.
Probably one of Douglass’s most prophetic, powerful, often quoted speeches came in 1852 before the civil war, before reconstruction, before Jim Crow laws, before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and before the public killings of so many African Americans. “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” Oddly enough this speech was given to an audience of mostly women from the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society in its celebration of July 4th. In this speech Douglass speaks from the perspective of a formerly enslaved, black, American citizen. And I quote:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
In a time when 21st century technology allows the world to bear witness to the atrocities happening in a nation that boast it is the land of the free and home of the brave-these words from Frederick Douglass 170 years ago reminds us American Citizens, as Christians and believers of faith, we have a long way to go in order to live up to words like freedom, human rights and true equality.
In 1858 Douglass housed John Brown as he planned his fateful raid on Harpers Ferry. Douglass would be the first black man to visit the white house in 1863, In 1877 he was appointed the U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, becoming the first African American confirmed for a Presidential appointment by the U.S. Senate. In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States, during the Republican National Convention. He would remain active right up until his death in 1895 suffering a heart attack on his way home from an early-stage meeting of the National Council of Women.
The legacy of Frederick Douglass and his use words and the power of story to change hearts and minds towards justice lives on in passionate orators such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Rev. Jesse Jackson and President Barack Obama. The amazing storytellers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Colson Whitehead. The eloquent wisdom of Oprah Winfrey that inspires millions and the talent of playwrights such Lorraine Hansberry, Lyn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau. Their words written, spoken, read and performed tell the story of Americans, of Black Americans. Like Douglass they touch hearts and bend minds towards the possibility of recognizing, celebrating and respecting the divinity of all people.
I would like to end today with one last quote from Douglass, juxtaposition next to verses from today’s scripture reading. Douglass wrote: “The American people have this 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 person nor property is safe.”
Isaiah 32: 16-18 read:
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
Sources: Wikipedia, History.com, npr.org, biography.com