Tom Kacich | There can’t be enough monuments to Frederick Douglass

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One of the many stops along the proposed Champaign County African American Heritage Trail will be a site in downtown Champaign, now the location of the One Main building, where Frederick Douglass spoke not once, but twice. At least, we believe he did.

We know that Douglass, the former slave and later world-renowned abolitionist leader — not just a great African American, but also a great American — was scheduled to speak at Barrett’s Hall, a three-story brick building at the northeast corner of Main and Hickory streets, in both 1869 and 1872.

Unfortunately, the newspapers of the 1860s and ’70s weren’t the complete, reliable correspondents of history they later would become. The Champaign Gazette and Union in 1869 carried a small, one-paragraph description of Douglass’ speech here in February 1869.

Douglass’ January 1872 speech was promoted in advance — “the African Demosthenes of the Nineteenth Century, the Tawny Philosopher of the Golden Age,” as the Champaign County Gazette called him — but it received no other coverage.

We suspect Douglass spoke here, but we don’t know for certain.

We do know that Douglass spoke around the same time in Springfield, as reported by the Bloomington Pantagraph, and in Chicago. In both places, as well as in Champaign, he was to speak about his plan to annex, by purchase, what then was called Santo Domingo (and San Domingo) and is known today as the Dominican Republic.

(The Chicago Tribune was unimpressed with Douglass’ advocacy: “This doctrine that the United States, as a nation, must travel the world over seeking some oppressed people to rescue from oppression and be forever engaged in the deliverance of afflicted sister-republics from oppression is too stale at this day to find national and unpaid advocates.”)

“The distinguished colored orator and statesman Frederick Douglass was in the city about three hours yesterday,” the Pantagraph reported on Jan. 19, 1872. “He lectured in Albia, Iowa, on Wednesday evening, arriving in this city at noon by way of the Burlington route and the IB&W Railway. After taking dinner at the Ashley House, he left the city for Springfield where he was announced to deliver his lecture on San Domingo last night.

“He expressed himself as very much pleased with the appearance of progress that Bloomington presents, particularly admiring the Court House. On political subjects Mr. Douglass speaks without reserve, as he has done, indeed, on all subjects during the whole of his eventful life. He is heartily in favor of the renomination of President Grant and believes the bulk of the Republican party to be of the same opinion.”

Although Douglass’ 1869 speech received some coverage, it was hardly in depth.

“Barrett Hall was crowded last Monday night for the purpose of listening to the renowned colored orator upon the subject of Self-Made Men,” said the Gazette and Union. “No man has ever yet addressed an audience in this city and received the marked attention that did Mr. Douglass. He handled his subject most skillfully and impressed his audience with the points of his arguments in the most happy manner.

“His wit was keen and sparkling, his humor dry and effective, and his argument and logic as clear as the most polished orator in the land. We congratulate the Library Association upon the financial success of the effort, the gross receipts amounting to $245, which will net the Association about $125.”

Nowhere did it say how much tickets to the Douglass speech cost. But he spoke in New York the same month to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Reserved seats were $1 and general admission was 50 cents. Considering the joint population of Champaign and Urbana was about 7,000 in 1870, a turnout of 100 or so for a speech on a cold night in January 1869 was impressive.

If only we could hear Douglass speak or even read a full transcript of what he had to say that night.

There are already several monuments to Douglass in Champaign, with at least one more to come. The man who has been suggested as one of the four Americans to be recognized on the next Mount Rushmore has a park, a library and a sculpture in Champaign named in his honor.

There cannot be enough memorials to this man who was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation in 1818, taught himself to read and at the age of 12, bought a book called “The Columbian Orator,” and escaped to freedom at the age of 20 — all of which set a course for a long life as a statesman and social reformer who advocated for literacy, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, equal rights and freedom for all. He showed the way for future generations of Americans committed to those ideals of individualism, righteousness, liberty and justice.

via The News-Gazette

December 6, 2021 at 09:36AM

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