By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA
Frederick Douglass was one of the giants of African American History. Born in slavery in 1818 in Maryland, he encouraged his white playmates to teach him to read, tried to start a slave rebellion in the 1830s, negotiated with Abraham Lincoln, and spoke truth to power on slavery, segregation, and lynching. While those facts are widely known, few know that he spoke here in Charleston at the Mt. Zion AME Church on Glebe Street the night of March 5, 1888.
The Charleston News and Courier of March 6, 1888 reveals that Douglass addressed very large audience of local blacks and a small amount of whites on the subject of “Self Made Men” that evening. After being introduced as “The foremost man today of the Negro race,” Douglass gave a speech that still has a lot of good advice to us in the 21st century. He began by explaining, “I scorn the good-luck which some men were supposed to achieve greatness. Knowledge came by study- battles were won by fighting. The man of good luck was the man of hard work.”
Since he was in a church, Douglass felt it appropriate to discuss the subject of prayer, but not in a manner in which his audience was perhaps accustomed to hearing. “I remember the little chimney corner where for three years, I knelt and prayed for my freedom, but I failed to see the slightest scintillation until I prayed with my legs.” This homily caused the audience to react with roars of approval. He continued, “There is no royal road to learning, or wealth, or distinction. No growth without exertion, no polish without friction, no progress without motion, no victory without a conflict, no crown without a cross.”
On the condition of the black race, Douglass made this statement in the language of his times which would be of great interest to modern listeners. “All I ask for the colored man is to let him alone and give him fair play. The American people owed the Negro a vast debt for the 250 years of slavery they had entailed upon them, and the surplus in the treasury of this country could not be better disposed of than by paying at least a portion of it to these people so long deprived of honest wages for honest work.” He concluded that “It is only a question of a short time when would be throughout the broad confines of this country equal and exact justice for all.”
In these times where we are in many cases found lacking in wise leadership and counsel, especially for our youth, it would do well for scholars to dig up the wise words of our elders, in hope that they could provide inspiration and information for the people of today.