‘PROPHET OF FREEDOM’ Frederick Douglass, pictured c. 1880. Pic: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection
When two great social reformists met
Fr Kevin Hegarty
In recent months there has been a heightened focus on the evil of racism. The Black Lives Matters movement has flourished. In Cork city, a walking tour of places associated with the visit of Frederick Douglass in 1845 was launched last month. It should attract interest.
Douglass was born into slavery in American state of Maryland 1815. By his early 20s, he had slipped its grasp. He wrote to a friend, “I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.”
He went on to be one of the leaders of the campaign to abolish slavery in the US. Some historians have labelled him the most significant American of the 19th century. His most recent biographer, David W Blight, called him ‘the prophet of freedom’.
Aware of his talent as an orator, friends asked him to tour Britain and Ireland in 1845 to highlight the horror of slavery and to gather international support for its abolition.
He began his tour in August 1845. He was happy in Ireland. He contrasted the contempt he experienced as a black man in the US with the welcome he received here:
“Instead of the bright blue sky of America I am covered with the soft grey fog of Ireland. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave or offer me an insult. I employ a cab and I am seated beside white people. I reach the hotel and I enter the same door and I am shown into the same parlour. I dine at the same table and no one is offended. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church I am met with no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow black people in here’.”
O’Connell and Douglass
His Irish journey started in Dublin. It gave him the opportunity to meet Daniel O’Connell, one of his political heroes. Associated with the achievement of Catholic Emancipation, O’Connell did not confine himself to Irish concerns. His commitment to liberty and social justice was universal. He wrote once, “I am a friend of liberty in every clime, class and colour.” In a speech to an anti-slavery meeting in 1829 he declared that ‘of all men living an American citizen who is the owner of slaves is the most despicable’.
He had often longed to go to America, but said: “So long as it was tarnished by slavery, I will never pollute my foot by treading on its shores.”
It is said that it can be a mistake to meet one’s heroes. Not so for Douglass. He and O’Connell got on very well. An accomplished orator himself, he recognised O’Connell as a master of public speaking. He was in awe of the older man’s prowess, which he ‘never heard surpassed at home and abroad’. “His eloquence came down upon the vast assembly like a summer thunder shower upon a dusty road.”
At a meeting in Conciliation Hall, O’Connell pleased him by introducing him to the crowd as ‘the black O’Connell of the United States’.
Fortified by the acclamation he received in Dublin, Douglass made his way to Cork where he spent a month. He delivered several powerful denunciations of slavery to supportive audiences. At the city courthouse he spoke for two hours in a lecture entitled ‘I am here to spread light on American slavery’. Another lecture given at the Imperial Hotel, titled ‘American prejudice against colour’, he said: “There is nothing slavery dislikes as much as the light. It is a gigantic system of iniquity that feeds and lives in darkness and like a tree with its roots turned to the sun, it perishes when exposed to the light.”
Both above venues are part of the 12-stop Douglass route in Cork City. The project, a collaboration of the city council and University College Cork, will soon be available online as a self-guided tour. Future plans include the installation of physical markers as points of reflection on the route.