Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

The Vermont Humanities Council is inviting Vermont communities to consider just what independence means this Independence Day.

For the sixth year, the organization will recruit communities to host readings of a speech first delivered at an Independence Day service in 1852 by abolitionist — and former slave — Frederick Douglass. The speech is commonly known as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

“In 2014, we held, I think, nine events,” said Jess Taylor, director of community programs for VHC. “It’s grown. In 2017, it was 30, I believe. In 2018 — if you can remember how darn hot it was — we would’ve gone beyond that but we had a couple that had to cancel. The important thing is we have communities that come back and new communities that come in. We’re trying to get one in Rutland.”

Taylor said VHC provides copies of the speech, not just for those presenting it but for the audience to read along. Some towns simply hold readings while others organize events discussing the historical context of the speech.

“We’d like to see more of that in the years to come, but right now, just getting it out there ... is great,” she said.

The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier hosted a reading for the first time last year.

“We had 88 people,” program and development coordinator Rachel Senechal said. “We held it on the steps in front of the library.”

Senechal said 33 people took turns reading paragraphs, a process that took at least an hour.

“It’s a great speech,” she said. “Parts of it are hard to hear because of the topic. ... People stayed on for a while and talked to other community members about the speech. We had people in tears because they were so moved.” The text of the speech is available on the VHC website — in full-length and two abridged versions. Douglass spent much of the speech dwelling on what a great accomplishment American independence was, and offered strong praise for the founding fathers.

“The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men,” he said. “They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. ... I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”

However, Douglass soon reminded his audience that the Founding Fathers left many of their fellow Americans behind during their talk of liberty.

“Fellow-citizens — above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them,” he said. “To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.”

Douglass went on to call out the persistence of slavery as a stain on American ideals.

“The speech just has a different way of taking you to a different place when you think about the Fourth of July,” Taylor said. “I just think that this is a really great opportunity for communities to come together for a moment and reflect on our country and what it means to be an American. It hasn’t always been the same for everyone.”

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