Studs Terkel presents a program in honor of the birthday of abolitionist and African American leader Frederick Douglass
BROADCAST: Feb. 15, 1971 | DURATION: 00:35:00
Studs Terkel presents a program in honor of the birthday of abolitionist and African American leader Frederick Douglass, including excepts from Terkel's 1964 interview with African-American scholar, author and social historian Lerone Bennett. Terkel reads at length from Douglass' autobiography, "My Bondage and My Freedom," focusing on Douglass' interactions with slave owners Hugh and Sophia Auld. The program includes multiple recordings of freedom songs and slave spirituals, including “I’m On My Way,” “Many Thousand Gone,” “Good News, de Chariot's Coming,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “Amazing Grace,” “We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder,” and “We Shall Walk Through the Valley.”
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Studs Terkel Frederick Douglass was born in the month of February of the year 1817, perhaps the most powerful of all abolitionists, a Black man, and his birthday has not really been fully celebrated. And I thought, since his -- the date of his birth is unknown. In the case of slaves, there were hardly birth certificates or, for that matter, in the case of older Black people after emancipation, there were hardly birth certificates. And so I thought, somewhere between Lincoln's birthday and Washington's birthday is the day of Frederick Douglass' birthday, 1817. In addition to this program that will involve the voice of Lerone Bennett, a Black historian/essayist and based upon a conversation with him in 1964, parts of which we'll hear talking about that period of abolitionism, pre-Civil War and Frederick Douglass himself, readings from his book, "My Life and My Bondage [sic]." [pause in recording] Perhaps a word about Frederick Douglass, this remarkable figure. He was one of the most astonishing of abolitionists. The son of a white man and a slave, Harriet Bailey, Douglass the name he took when he won his freedom. Born on a plantation, Maryland, he escaped, brought back, his life was a remarkable one. He worked with William Lloyd Garrison and then edited his own paper. Well, perhaps as we hear, this was a conversation some six years ago, so you will hear references that may seem dated yet are far from dated, with Lerone Bennett based on his book, "Before the Mayflower," and talking about that period preceding the Civil War, the critical period in the 1830s, 1840s and the abolitionist movement, and we pick it up as I'm talking to Lerone Bennett. [pause in recording] The crisis was a compound of many things, of machines and turnpikes and railroad tracks of sin, sex and salvation, of the restless yearnings of poor whites and the volcanic stirrings of poor Blacks, of the fear, guilt and anxiety which lay like a slave chain across the American soul. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Jefferson Davis did not make the crisis, but they would stand in the eye of the storm and each in his own way would symbolize the latent possibilities in the American dream. [pause in recording] This could well be the musical symbol of us since a little abolitionist lady wrote those words, Julia Ward Howe. This leads to this --
Lerone Bennett, Jr. To the abolitionist movement. This is one of the great reform movements, revolutionary movements, if you will, in American history. It in some ways reminds reminds you of the contemporary freedom movement, because here was an attempt on the part of radicals, really, to smash a system and to establish a new social order based on the words of the Declaration of Independence. The abolitionists were serious. They were not playing. They were willing to give up place, position, and prestige in order to fight for the rights of Negroes. Another parallel between the abolitionist movement and the contemporary freedom movement is the use of the song. It seems that a good crusade needs a good song and the abolitionists were singing crusaders like the Mormons sit-in students. They went into jails and they disturbed their jailers by singing all night.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. This happened with the abolitionist, too. The abolitionists Also used lecturers or agents who went into towns to agitate and disturb people. These agents and lecturers subsisted on minimum fees as the young snick rebels do in the South. So all in all, there are many parallels between the old abolitionist movement and the contemporary freedom movement. Both ask for a complete change in things as they were, in the case of abolitionists and things as they are today. The abolitionist movement began around 1831 and Nat Turner, whom we mentioned earlier, had an important bearing, played an important role in focusing the spotlight on William Lloyd Garrison, who became the great symbol of the abolitionist movement. With the Nat Turner revolt in 1831, a wave of hysteria rolled over America and the Southerners asked that all Northerners agitating the slavery question be silent. And they particularly pointed to a young obscure journalist in Boston named William Lloyd Garrison, a young white journalist who committed himself body and soul to the struggle for Negro rights and he began to publish his paper on January the 1st, 1831 and I, if I can find it, I want to find --
Lerone Bennett, Jr. From "The Liberator," right. Oh, yes. His first editorial, it sang out with indignation, he said, "I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, slavery, I do not wish to think, to speak, or write with moderation. No, no, tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm. Tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher. Tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen, but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard."
Lerone Bennett, Jr. The murder of Lovejoy in Illinois, the frantic attempt on the part of pro-slavery people in the South and the North, too, to silence a group who disturbed and startled and agitated.
Studs Terkel And yet they had their song, as you say, as with the freedom movement today, there then they had their songs. This was the abolitionist hymn written by one who had written many songs for the Civil War for the Union troops. This one was indeed one that may have been sung at abolitionist get-togethers, this excerpt from the hymn of another generation, of another century, a freedom song. This of course led to the eternal decision, the decision, the moment of truth for a great many people outside who when the Underground Railway went into action, "Should they or should they not harbor a fugitive?" This was the big question.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. A moment of truth for moderates and for liberals people who wanted to sit on the fence in the age of great moral crisis and the Underground Railroads, operated by Negro and white agents, and the Negro agents who traveled on this railroad forced people to make a decision. Would slaves travel on the network of routes which led through Pennsylvania and New York on the eastern coast and up through from Kentucky through Illinois and Michigan in the Midwest, and wherever the slave appeared, a fugitive slave, wherever he knocked on the door, or wherever he requested aid or medicine or bread or a place to sleep for the night, a man had to make a decision, and he had to decide for or against slavery, and having decided, he was never the same again, you see. This was a principle that worked also on the Resistance movement in France, because the leaders of the movement realized how important action is in forcing people to take a stand. People can avoid a decision as long as you talk, but when you act, you confront them with what is called "the propaganda of the deed."
Studs Terkel Again, one of your paragraphs about the slaves escaping, "Wherever they rapped, wherever they stopped, men and women had to make a decision either for or against slavery. Fugitive slaves reached people who were cool or hostile to the speaking abolitionists." I'll ask you about that in a moment. Whigs helped them, the Democrats, too, Quakers helped them and Southern Baptists. Frederick Douglass said, "We seldom called in vain upon Whig or Democrat for help. Men were better than their theology." That's a marvelous phrase. "And truer to humanity than to their politics or their offices."
Lerone Bennett, Jr. Or people who did not want, perhaps, to be involved, and who could avoid making a decision if slaves had not persisted in escaping and knocking on their doors and bringing the whole horrible problem to their doorsteps.
Studs Terkel Jabbing at that conscience that might otherwise have been just so pleasantly, placidly asleep, and there the jab came and the decision to be made. And since I quoted Frederick Douglass and, of course, his name has come up continuously now, one of the, I suppose, titanic figures in American history, and you devote a good deal of the chapter to this remarkable man. Who was Frederick Douglass, where did he come from, what made him, this is the question.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. He was a slave, an ex-slave, who emancipated himself, who escaped, joined the abolitionist movement and became one of the great names of the 19th century. He was a great Negro leader but he was, he was greater than the label "Negro." He was a great American, and his story has value I think to all Americans, Negro and white. As I said, he escaped from slavery and he joined the garrison wing of the abolitionist movement. But he soon stepped out on his own and begun to articulate an independent philosophy and to assume an independent position of leadership in the movement. He wrote several books, several autobiographies, and he started a paper, the famous "North Star." And after the Civil War, of course, he became a leading Republican politician. But the important thing I think about in this era is that in this period preceding the Civil War, Douglass laid the foundations for the modern protest movement. One hundred or more years ago he was staging sit-ins on Massachusetts railroads. One hundred and more years ago he --
Studs Terkel One-man
Lerone Bennett, Jr. sit-in. He was fighting for integrated schools in Rochester, New York, and 100 or more years ago he was denouncing hypocrisy and fraud with [unintelligible] and eloquence and his speeches have been collected, incidentally, speeches speak to our contemporary situation with force and imagination that can hardly be imagined by anyone who is unfamiliar with his works.
Studs Terkel [pause in recording] From Frederick Douglass' life and times, in "My Bondage and My Freedom," a remarkable document he wrote in 1855. He tells of a small boyhood and the glimmerings, the first glimmerings, he speaks of his -- A very kind woman who was his mistress, his master's wife, and he writes, "Mrs. Sophia was naturally of an excellent disposition, kind, gentle, cheerful. The supercilious contempt for the rights and feelings of others and the petulance and bad humor which generally characterize slave-holding ladies were all quite absent from her manner and bearing toward me. She had never been a slaveholder, a thing then quite unusual in the south, but had depended almost entirely upon her own industry for a living. To this fact the dear lady no doubt owed the excellent preservation of her natural goodness of heart, for slavery could change a saint into a sinner, an angel into a demon. I hardly knew how to behave toward Miss Sophia, as I called Mrs. Hugh Auld. Why should I hang down my head and speak with bated breath when there was no pride to scorn me? No coldness to repel me, and no hatred to inspire me with fear. I therefore soon came to regard her as something more akin to a mother than a slave-holding mistress. So far from deeming an impudent and a slave to look her straight in the face, she seemed ever to say, "Look up, child. Don't be afraid." The sailors belonging to the sloop esteemed it a great privilege to be bearers of parcels for her, for whenever they came they were sure of a most kind and pleasant reception. If little Thomas was her son, and her most dearly loved child, she made me something like his half-brother in her affections. If dear Tommy was exalted to a place on his mother's knee, Freddy was honored by a place at the mother's side. Nor did the slave boy lack the caressing strokes of her gentle hand soothing him into the consciousness that, though motherless, he was not friendless. Mrs. Auld was not only kind-hearted but remarkably pious frequent in her attendance public worship, much given to reading the Bible, chanting hymns of praise when alone. Mr. Hugh, her husband, was altogether a different character. He cared very little about religion, knew more of the world, and was more part of the world than his wife. He doubtless set out to be as the world goes a respectable man and to get on to becoming a successful shipbuilder. This was his ambition and it fully occupied him. I was of course of very little consequence to him, and when he smiled upon me the smile was borrowed from his lovely wife and, like borrowed light, was trenchant and banished with a source once it was derived. Though I must in truth characterize Master Hugh as a sour man of forbidding appearance, it is due to him to acknowledge that he was never cruel to me according to the notion of cruelty in Maryland. During the first year or two he left me almost exclusively to the management of his wife. My employment was to run errands, to take care of Tommy, to prevent his getting in the way of carriages, and to keep him out of harm's way generally. So for a time everything went well, I say for a time because the fatal poison of irresponsible power and the natural influence of slave customs were not very long in making their impression a gentle and loving disposition of my excellent mistress. She at first regarded me as a child like any other. This was the natural spontaneous thought; afterwards, when she came to consider me as property, our relations to each other were changed, but a nature so noble as hers could not instantly become perverted and it took several years before the sweetness of her temper was wholly lost. The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud, for she often read aloud when her husband was absent, awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to that time I had known no nothing whatever of this wonderful art and my ignorance and inexperience and what it could do for me as well as my confidence in my mistress emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read. With an unconsciousness and experience -- Inexperience equal to my own, she readily consented and in an incredible short time with her kind assistance I had mastered the alphabet and could spell words of three or four letters. My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress as if I'd been her own child and supposing that her husband would be well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultantly told him of the aptness of her pupil and of her intention to persevere as she felt it her duty to do in teaching me at least to read the Bible. And here arose the first dark cloud over my Baltimore prospects the precursor of chilling blasts and drenching storms. Master Hugh was astounded beyond measure and probably for the first time proceeded to unfold to his wife the true philosophy of the slave system and the peculiar rules necessary in the nature of the case to be observed in the management of human chattels. Of course, he forbade her to give me any further instruction, telling her in the first place that to do so was unlawful as it was also unsafe, for, said he, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master and learn to obey it. As to himself, the learning will do him no good but a great deal of harm making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you teach him how to read, he will know how to write, and this accomplished, he will be running away with himself." Such was the tenor of Master Hugh's oracular exposition and it must be confessed he very clearly comprehended the nature and the requirements of the relation of master and slave. His discourse was the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture in which it had been my lot to listen. Mrs. Auld evidently felt the force of what he said and, like an obedient wife, began to shape her course in the direction indicated by him. The effect of his words on me was neither slight nor transitory. His iron sentences, cold and harsh, sunk like heavyweights deep in my heart and stirred up within me a rebellion not soon to be allayed. This was a new and special revelation dispelling a painful mystery against which my youthful understanding had struggled and struggled in vain, to wit, the white man's power to perpetuate the enslavement of the Black man. Very well, thought I, knowledge unfits a child to be a slave. I instinctively assented to the proposition and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I needed and it came to me at a time and from a source whence I least expected it. Of course, I was greatly saddened at the thought of losing the assistance of my kind mistress. But the information so instantly derived to some extent compensated me for the loss I sustained in this direction. Wise as Mr. Auld was, he underrated my comprehension and little idea of the use to which I was capable of putting the impressive lesson he was giving to his wife. My mistress, checked in her benevolent designs toward me, not only ceased instructing me herself but set her face, her own face, as a flint against my learning to read by any means. It was due to her to say however, that she did not adopt this course and all that stringency at first. She either thought it unnecessary or she lacked the depravity needed to make herself forget at once my human nature. She was, I have said, naturally a kind and tender-hearted woman and in the humanity of her heart the simplicity of her mind she set out, when I first went to live with her, to treat me she supposed one human being ought to treat another. Nature never intended that men and women should be either slaves or slaveholders, and nothing but rigid training, long persisted in, can perfect the character of one or the other. Mrs. Auld was singularly deficient in the qualities of a slaveholder. It was no easy matter for her to think or to feel that the curly-headed boy who stood by her side and even leaned on her lap, who was loved by little Tommy, and who loved little Tommy in turn sustained to her only the relation of a chattel. I was more than that. She felt me to be more than that. I could talk and sing. I could laugh and weep. I could reason and remember. I could love and hate. I was human and she, dear lady, knew and felt me to be so. How could she then treat me as a brute without a mighty struggle with all the noblest powers of her soul? That struggle came and the will and power of the husband were victorious. Her noble soul was overcome and he who wrought the wrong, was injured in the fall, no less than the rest of the household. When I went into that household it was the abode of happiness and contentment. The wife and mistress there was a model of affection and tenderness. Her fervent piety and watchful uprightness made it impossible to see her without thinking and feeling that that woman is a Christian. There was no sorrow nor suffering for which she had not a tear. And there was no innocent joy for which she had not a smile. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner who came within her reach. But slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these excellent qualities and her home of its early happiness. Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly injured, who is he who can repair the damage? If it has broken toward the slave on Sunday, it will be toward the master on Monday. It cannot long endure such shocks. It must stand unharmed or it does not stand at all. [pause in recording] As my condition in the family waxed bad, that of the family waxed no better. The first step in the wrong direction was the violence done to nature and to conscience in arresting the benevolence that would have enlightened my young mind. In ceasing to instruct me my mistress had to seek to justify to herself and once consented to take sides in such a debate, she was compelled to hold her position. One needs a little knowledge of moral philosophy to see where she inevitably landed. She finally became even more violent in her opposition to my learning to read than was Mr. Auld himself. Nothing now appeared to make her more angry than seeing me seated in some nook or corner quietly reading a book or newspaper. She would rush at me with the utmost fury and snatch the book or paper from my hand with something of a wrath and consternation which a traitor might be supposed to feel upon being discovered in a plot by some dangerous spy. The conviction, once thoroughly established in her mind that education and slavery were incompatible with each other, I was most narrowly watched in all my movements. If I remained in a separate room from the family for any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book and was at once called to give an account of myself. But this was too late. The first, and never-to-be-retraced step had been taken. Teaching me the alphabet had been the inch given. I was now waiting only the opportunity to take the ell. Filled with a determination to learn to read at any cost, I hit upon many expedients to accomplish that much-desired end. The plan which I mainly adopted and the one which was the most successful was that of using as teachers my young white playmates with whom I met on the streets. I used almost constantly to carry a copy of Webster's spelling book in my pocket and when sent on errands or when playtime was allowed me, I would step aside with my young friends and take a lesson in spelling. I am greatly indebted to these boys: Gustavus Dorgan, Joseph Bailey, Charles Farity, and William Cosdry. Although slavery was a delicate subject and in Maryland very cautiously talked about among grown-up people, I frequently talked with the white boys about it and very freely. I would sometimes say to them while seated in the curbstone or a cellar door, "I wish I could be free as you will be when you get to be men. You will be free, you know, as soon as you're twenty-one, and can go where you like. But I am a slave for life. Have I not as good a right to be free as you have?" Words like these, I observed, always troubled them. And I had no small satisfaction in drawing out from them as I occasionally did that fresh and bitter condemnation of slavery which ever springs from natures unseared and unperverted. Of all the consciences, let me have those to deal with which have not been seared and bewildered with the cares and perplexities of life. I do not remember ever while I was in slavery to have met with a boy who defended the system. But ,I do remember many times when I was consoled by them and by them encouraged to hope that something would yet occur by which I could be made free. Over and over again they have told me that they believed I had as good a right to be free as they had and that they did not believe God ever made anyone to be a slave. It is easily seen that such little conversations with my playfellows had no tendency to weaken my love of liberty nor to render me contented as a slave. When I was 13 years old," writes Frederick Douglass in this remarkable document, "And had succeeded in learning to read every increase of knowledge especially anything respecting the Free States was an additional weight, almost impossible burden of my thought. I am a slave for life. To my bondage I could see no end, it was a terrible reality and I shall never be able to say how sadly that thought shaped my young spirit. Fortunately or unfortunately I had by blacking boots for some gentlemen earned a little money with which I purchased of Mr. Knight on [Thames?] street was within a very popular school book, "The Colombian Orator," for which I paid fifty cents. I was led to buy this book by hearing some little boys say they were going to learn some pieces out of it for an exhibition. This volume was indeed a rich treasure, and for a time every opportunity afforded me was spent in diligently perusing it. Among much of the interesting matter that which I read again and again with unflagging satisfaction was a short dialogue between a master and a slave. The slave was represented as having been recaptured in a second attempt to run away and the master opens the dialogue with an upbraiding speech charging the slave with ingratitude man to know what he has to say in his own defense. Thus upbraided and thus called upon to reply, the slave rejoins that he knows how little anything that he can say will avail seeing that he's completely in the hands of his owner, and with noble resolution, calmly says, "I submit to my fate." Touched by the slave's answer, the master insists upon his further speaking and recapitulates the many acts of kindness which he has performed toward the slave and tells him he is permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited, the quondam slave made a spirited defense of himself and thereafter the whole argument for and against slavery is brought out. The master was vanquished at every turn in the argument and appreciating the fact he generously and meekly emancipates the slave with his best wishes for his prosperity. It is unnecessary to say that a dialogue with such an origin and such an end read by me when every nerve of my being was in revolt at my condition as a slave affected me most powerfully. I could not help feeling that the day might yet come when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master in this instance would find a counterpart in my own experience. This, however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in "The Colombian Orator." I met there one of Sheraton's mighty speeches ,on the subject of Catholic emancipation, Lord Chatham's speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with an interest ever-increasing because it was ever gaining in intelligence, for the more I read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave holder and compelling him to yield up his earthly interest to the claims of eternal justice were finally illustrated in the dialogue and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was indeed a noble acquisition. If I had ever wavered from the consideration of the Almighty in some way had ordained slavery and willed my enslavement for His own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated to the secret of all slavery and of all oppression and ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power, and the avarice of man. With a book in my hand so redolent of the principles of liberty and with the perception of my own human nature and of the facts of my past and present experience I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether white or Black, for blindness in this matter was not confined to the white people. I have met at the South many good religious colored people who are under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this and I quite lost my patience when I found a colored man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, eager as I was to partake of the Tree of Knowledge, its fruits were bitter as well as sweet. Slaveholders, thought I, are only a band of successful robbers who leaving their own homes went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery. I loathed them as the meanest and most wicked of men and as I read, behold, the very discontent so graphically predicted by Master Hugh had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-hearted, gleesome boy full of mirth and play that I was when I landed in Baltimore. Light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I had lain and I saw the bloody whip for my back and the iron chain for my feet and my good kind master was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, made me gloomy and miserable as I arrived under the stinging torment of this knowledge. I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid indifference. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me. But alas, it opened no way for my escape. I wished myself a beast, a bird, anything rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy beyond my ability to describe. This everlasting thinking distressed and tormented me. And yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my thoughts. Liberty as the inestimable birthright of every man converted every object into an asserter of this right. I heard it in every sound and saw it in every object. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretchedness. The more beautiful and charming were the smiles of nature the more horrible and desolate was my condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. I heard nothing without hearing it. I do not exaggerate when I say that it looked at me in every star, smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I have no doubt that my state of mind had something to do with a change in treatment which my mistress adopted towards me. I can easily believe that my leaden, downcast and disconsolate look was very offensive to her. Poor lady. She did not understand my trouble and I could not tell her. I could have made her acquainted with the real state of my mind and given her the reasons therefor; it might have been well for both of us. As it was, her abuse fell upon me like the blows of a false prophet upon his ass. She did not know that an angel stood in the way. Nature made us friends, but slavery had made us enemies. My interests were in a direction opposite to hers and we both had our private thoughts and plans. She aimed to keep me ignorant and I resolved to know, although knowledge only increased my misery. My feelings were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received. They sprung from the consideration of my being a slave at all. It was slavery, not its mere incidents, that I hated. I had been cheated. I saw through the attempt to keep me in ignorance. I saw that slaveholders would have gladly made me believe that in making a slave of me and in making slaves of others, they were merely acting under the authority of God and I felt to them as to robbers and deceivers but feeding and clothing me well could not atone for taking my liberty from me. The smiles of my mistress could not remove the deep sorrow that dwelt in my young bosom. Indeed these came in time but to deepen my sorrow. She had changed and the reader will see that I, too, had changed. We were both victims to the same overshadowing evil, she as mistress, I as slave. I will not censure her harshly." And thus, excerpt from Frederick Douglass' "My Bondage and My Freedom," written in 1855. Later on, it became the volume "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," and thus our way of celebrating Frederick Douglass' birthday. From here on, an annual Frederick Douglass Day program.