President Obama will be honoring Frederick Douglass next month.
He’ll be a guest at the formal unveiling of a Douglass memorial sculpted by artist Andrew Edwards.
No, he’ll not becoming to New Bedford, the city where one of the 19th Century’s most eloquent champions of social justice first lived in freedom after escaping slavery. No,
Obama will be traveling to Ireland.
You’ll find no significant memorial to Frederick Douglass in this class-besot city by the sea, no school bearing his name despite all he did for education, no grand boulevard celebrating the openings he carved for the rights of humanity, no public square marking his fight to abolish slavery.
Sure, there is a modest stone slab outside City Hall that takes note of his presence in this city.
And there is the noble but underfinanced efforts of folks in the New Bedford Historical Society to keep his memory alive by preserving the house where he lived on Seventh Street from the wrecker’s ball.
But no, Obama won’t be coming to Seventh Street. Not even close. He’ll be in County Cork.
He’ll be traveling to Cork in the Republic of Ireland where the University College Cork (UCC) is memorializing Douglass and the bonds he forged with the Irish during a stay of almost six months in 1845.
That was the year the potato famine began and helped create a class of starving Irish peasantry reduced to living conditions worse even than the conditions imposed on the enslaved millions of blacks in America.
That was a year anti-slavery agitation in the American North was roiling the South, churning the political emotions that would lead to the Civil War just 16 years later.
The Abolitionist Movement had discovered the brilliant young firebrand while he still lived in New Bedford and tried to shape his evolving political views to its own purposes.
Douglass was not a man used by anyone, even would-be sponsors and friends who recoiled at his iron refusal to be patronized.
He had paid to steep a price for his freedom to surrender an inch of it, whether to slave-catchers paid to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, to downright racists eager to attack him for his fiery rhetoric, or to sympathetic whites who thought they knew what was best for him.
Strong physically as well as mentally, he used his fists when mobs sought to drive him from speaking platforms.
But by the mid-1840′s, he needed a respite from the constant threats to life, limb and liberation. When the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society invited him to Ireland, he readily accepted.
He stayed in Ireland for a few months but he never lived there the way he lived with us. Yet, the Irish are honoring him in a state ceremony beyond anything this city has ever done for Frederick Douglass.
Douglass walked our streets, worshiped in our churches, labored on our waterfront. He first found his gift for oratory while living in the Johnson house across the way from the Quaker Meeting House. You can’t name a more significant New Bedford resident of any era, if you consider what he achieved on a national and international scale.
But you’d have to go on a treasure hunt to find his portrait on display around here, let alone his statue, let alone a city park in his name.
Some kids collaborated to paint a beautiful mural of Douglass on a blank wall near Probate Court a few years back.
But that mural hardly bears the imprint of officialdom.
It’s almost as if New Bedford is ashamed of him. Maybe he was too radical for New Bedford, too much a firebrand, too uppity. Douglass has been marginalized in New Bedford. I can’t help but wonder why.
Whatever he was didn’t bother Abraham Lincoln, who liked and respected him and kept him on the White House guest list. (Mrs. Lincoln gave Douglass the president’s walking stick as a remembrance after his death.) And that didn’t bother Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Liberator, who befriended Douglass during his stay in Ireland.
Douglass loved Ireland and by all accounts, the Irish loved him and his capacity to identify with their pain as victims of appalling injustice.
He credited Irishmen on the Baltimore docks with suggesting his flight to freedom; he never forgot the time during his 1845 voyage to Europe when an angry group of white passengers threatened to throw him overbroad for his anti-slavery views and how a robust Irishman named Gough stepped forward to defend Douglass, declaring, “Two can play at this game.”
And he never forgot the special taste of freedom in Ireland where he would later say he experienced some of the happiest moments of his life. “Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle,” he would write. “and, lo, the chattel becomes a man.”
In Ireland, he said, he was not seen as a color but as a man, “not as a thing but as a child of the common father of us all.”
In Ireland, he learned about the politics of a mass movement; he also learned how speech can move mountains. He heard the great orator, O’Connell, speak at a massive rally.
“His eloquence,” he wrote, “came down upon the vast assembly like a summer-thunder shower upon a dusty road.”
Douglass would produce the same effects on American audiences.
It’s about time New Bedford did his memory justice and paid this great man his due. Melville has a boulevard. At the very least, Douglass deserves a high school.
Ken Hartnett is a former editor of The Standard-Times and SouthCoastToday and is a resident of New Bedford.