DARTMOUTH — The Frederick Douglass Unity House at UMass Dartmouth, named for the famed abolitionist whose 200th birthday was Wednesday, is more than just a meeting place for clubs on campus.
“When I walk into this Unity House, I feel the sense of I am home, I’m important, I’m a leader,” said Natasha Fortes, class of 2018. She said her parents are immigrants from Cape Verde and she’s a first generation college student and soon, graduate student.
“I felt as though the Unity House was a way for me to appreciate and accept who I was as a person,” she said.
The Unity House hosted a birthday celebration with musical performances by Kekeli African Drum and Dance Ensemble, hors d'oeuvres and cake which was cut by Douglass himself, characterized by Guy Peartree.
“My peers and I are given a voice in the Unity House,” and then encouraged to go out and use those voices, said Bryan Nju-Ghong, a class of 2021 biology major.
Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society, said she started her day in New Bedford with a group of Carney Academy fourth graders, putting a wreath on a Douglass memorial.
Blake said she particularly likes teaching kids about Douglass because “When I was a little one, all I ever saw were white faces on TV.”
Later in Douglass' life, when people asked how they would keep moving forward, he answered “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”, Blake said, adding “I hope that’s what you will be doing because we have a lot to take care of.”
Peartree, as Douglass, took to the podium with a white popped collar, tie, embroidered paisley vest and tan coat over his shoulders.
“My birth has happened on many occasions,” he said, explaining when he escaped slavery and went North to be free, when the Emancipation Proclamation was declared and educating himself in order to speak out against slavery.
Referencing the cake in honor of Douglass, he said “This morsel stands for freedom, it stands for courage, it stands for unbelievable promise that each of us contains within our being.”
Erik Andrade, a New Bedford activist and slam poet, said the Unity House changed his life. He reflected on local people of color who have been murdered. “Education is the opportunity to prevent this violence,” he said.
“If we’re going to honor the memory of somebody, we have to honor it in the actions that we take and in the way we live,” Andrade said.
“It’s not a time for celebrating; it’s a time for organizing,” he said.
The house itself is decorated with student artwork, including portraits of Douglass. “We continue to provide a home away from home for many students on this campus,” said Nicole Williams, director of the Unity House.
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