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Words of 19th Century African American Orator Frederick Douglass Speak to a 21st Century Generation


Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery, became one of slavery's most eloquent opponents. As a young boy, he was separated from his mother and siblings. As an adult, he argued that breaking families apart was what allowed slavery to continue. "I have sometimes said recently, ladies and gentlemen," he thundered, "that if the people of this country, the citizens of this land, truly want to have slavery return, simply destroy all sense of family - and you'll have it."

The words, heard at a Black History Month presentation, are from Douglass as spoken by Fred Morsell. The actor has made a career of re-creating Frederick Douglass and his fiery rhetoric on stage. With a formal gray suit and bow tie setting off his long white hair and silver beard, Mr. Morsell bears a strong resemblance to the real Frederick Douglass. Indeed, he looks more like the 19th century activist than Frederick Douglass IV, his direct descendant, who is working with actors and educators to bring his ancestor's determined vision to life. Mr. Douglass says the basic message for young black Americans is to persevere. "If [people like my great-great grandfather] could come to this world as slaves," he says, "and leave the plantations with little more than what they had on their backs and become the doctors, lawyers and leaders that they are, then you have absolutely no excuse but to move forward."

That lesson was brought home by Mr. Morsell, modern-day orators, and young performers, including a choir of local elementary school students. Their presentations described how the young Douglass learned to read and write, escaped to the North when he was 20, and became an anti-slavery activist and celebrated orator. Ultimately, historians say, he helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln that freeing the slaves was the only way to win the Civil War.

"There are a lot of lessons that can be learned" from his great-great grandfather's life, according to Mr. Douglass, many of them not well-known. So he and his wife travel throughout the country to talk about his place in American history. "I think now it's difficult to teach everything you want to teach about history; there's so much you need to compress. We have Black History Month partially because so much has been suppressed in terms of black history."

Americans may know that after the Civil War (1961-65), Frederick Douglass was a leader in the campaign to win black men the right to vote, but not that he added his voice to the cause of suffrage for women, as well. Both groups were denied the vote in the original U.S. Constitution.

Douglass was an advisor to several presidents, a government official, a newspaper publisher and an author. He spent the years 1845 to 1847 in London and traveled throughout Europe. "He still retains international stature," Mr. Douglass points out, "because of his involvement not only as an abolitionist but as a suffragist, and one who was concerned overall about the civil rights of human beings." He was treated as an equal during his European sojourn, and wrote it was there that he had the dream that some day, all black Americans would be treated the same way he was in England.

Frederick Douglass IV says he hopes that celebrations of the life of his great-great grandfather will inspire young people to continue learning and succeeding.

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