Frederick Douglass Speech Takes Center Stage in Quechee

  • Diane Ames, of Quechee, Vt., moves chairs to the Quechee Green gazebo for a group reading of Frederick Douglass' 1852 Independence Day speech on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Event organizers hosted the event under the gazebo because of heavy rain. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Myrna Brooks, of Quechee, Vt., reads an excerpt of Frederick Douglass' 1852 Independence Day speech, "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro," on Saturday, July 1, 2017, at the Quechee Green. Brooks, who has two black grandchildren, helped organize the Quechee reading. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dick Brooks, of Quechee, Vt., reads an excerpt of Frederick Douglass' 1852 Independence Day speech, "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro," on Saturday, July 1, 2017, at the Quechee Green. Event organizers hosted the event under the gazebo because of heavy rain. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bob Williamson, of South Woodstock, Vt., participates in a group reading of Frederick Douglass' 1852 Independence Day speech, "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro," on Saturday, July 1, 2017, in Quechee. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2017 1:05:08 AM
Modified: 7/2/2017 1:05:09 AM

Quechee — As heavy storms pelted the region on Saturday, closing roads, bringing down power lines and forcing Independence Day celebrants to cancel events around the Upper Valley, a small group that morning braved the elements to take turns reading Frederick Douglass on the Quechee Green.

The gathering, comprising a score of windswept attendees under the gazebo, was one of 20 around the state organized by the Vermont Humanities Council and, here, by the Quechee Library.

“Even after becoming a citizen,” Marieke Sperry, a Dutch native and librarian who helped put together the event, said beforehand, “it’s actually events like this that make you part of a society.”

Without further ado, at 11 o’clock, the participants stepped up to a microphone to re-create a speech that Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist writer, gave to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, in Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852.

Douglass began his oration that day with an acknowledgement of the country’s youth.

“You are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood,” an abridged copy of the speech read. “I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.”

The day’s weather made that observation a literal one. Thunder boomed now and then, and a steady patter of raindrops soon grew to a heavy clatter.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Douglass asks, near the climax of the speech.

“I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

As Douglass, through Saturday’s volunteers, went on to detail the nation’s crimes — including, he said, a justice system that acknowledged slavery even in free states, making the entire nation complicit — the storm grew in strength.

The rain blew sideways through the gazebo, drenching the people sitting in folding chairs there. Droplets danced in the air in the center of the platform, pushed this way and that by competing winds. Moisture beaded on the back of a gaunt, white-bearded man who sat near the edge of the gazebo in no more than a T-shirt.

About a third of an inch of rain fell as the Quechee congregants read, growing to a full inch in the hour afterward, according to National Weather Service observations at Lebanon Municipal Airport.

After a brief period of sunshine later in the day, inch after inch poured down, sending vehicles off the roads, knocking out power all over the Upper Valley and forcing evacuations in Thetford.

In Quechee that morning, Sperry, the librarian who helped organize the gathering, took the weather as a metaphorical echo of the event’s subject matter.

“It occurred to me that maybe Frederick Douglass was with us, thundering and letting his voice be heard,” she said.

Douglass himself, speaking just a few years before the Civil War and the end of slavery, told the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society that he did not “despair of this country.”

“I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope,” he said, adding that he allowed himself to be “cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age” — that being a general shift toward an interconnected world, and away from a collection of “walled cities and empires” ruled by brutal strongmen.

“No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world,” he said, “and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.”

But Sperry added that, if Douglass had been there on Saturday, he would have been discouraged to see that “the world hasn’t changed more.” Noting that everyone around the circle appeared to be white, she urged those present to do what they could to improve circumstances for black people.

“There are paragraphs of this speech that could have been written today,” she said in an interview afterward. “Things have changed a lot — but not that much.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.




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