Frederick Douglass Was Here


W.Q. Atwood; Frederick Douglass; William and Wallace Goodridge


In our introduction to Black History Month social media post, we noted that the tradition of honoring Black history in February grew out of Carter G. Woodson’s first concept of a Black History Week. He selected a week that encapsulated Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. In honor of that original idea, we wanted to share a bit about Frederick Douglass today on his birthday.

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and anti-slavery orator, was one of the best writers in American history, and he had a profound effect on how Americans thought about the moral and economic implications of slavery.


Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Douglass continued to advocate for civil rights for Black people and for women. He was an ardent supporter of expanding the right to vote. The right to vote along with the rights enjoyed by all US citizens, were major themes of Douglass’ two-hour speech during his first visit to East Saginaw in 1868. The Enterprise, East Saginaw’s paper did not provide a complete record of his speech but praised Douglass and his theme: “Self made men.” The reporter summarized: “…in a style which varies from grave to gay from lively to serve [sic], he was sometimes passionately eloquent, sometimes playfully colloquial, and at all times faithful to his theme… and demanded for all races the right to that equality… that chance to achieve success, which it is an American boast that its white citizens permanently enjoy.”


Douglass returned to East Saginaw in August 1885 for a celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of British slave trade. Douglass also noted the end of American slavery and marked these two accomplishments, saying they made the nineteenth century the most remarkable.


In many ways, he spoke about the same themes as his earlier Saginaw speech, but the community atmosphere in 1885 was deeply unsettled. Black lumber baron, W. Q. Atwood, extended the invitation to Douglass having made his acquaintance through the Goodridge family. William O. and Wallace Goodridge had their successful photography studio in East Saginaw by that time, but the family had long been acquainted with Frederick Douglass through their father, William C. Goodridge, who had worked in the same anti-slavery circles back east.


Nearly a month before Douglass arrived, on July 10 a sawmill strike began in Bay City and soon spread to Saginaw. It was known as the “Ten Hours or No Sawdust” strike. Mill owners had decided to call for a 25 percent reduction in wages from the previous year, but they still expected workers to labor for the same eleven-hour days. The mill workers demanded a ten-hour day, instead, to reflect the reduction in wages.


While this post will not delve deeply into the politics of unionization, it is interesting to consider the juxtaposition of Douglass’ talk on racial uplift through enterprising work and Atwood’s role as a lumber baron. There is little record of Black Saginawians unionizing, and no success noted on the part of the Knights of Labor to organize a Black union in Saginaw. What role did Atwood play in all of this? The record is unclear.


It is against this backdrop that Frederick Douglass spoke to a packed house in Arbeiter Hall in East Saginaw on August 5, 1885. In addition to celebrating the importance of the abolition of slavery first by Great Britain and then, through war, by the United States, Douglass dedicated some of his speech to eulogizing Ulysses S. Grant who had recently passed away. Douglass calls Grant a champion of freedom, the kind of freedom that was hollow until emancipation was secured by the great nations.


To Douglass, the anti-slavery movement was not just of the past as an isolated moment. He said, “it must be looked at as part of that eternal and universal conflict everywhere in progress between human justice, enlightenment and goodness, on the one hand, and human pride, selfishness, injustice and tyrannical power on the other…” He said the evil that led to slavery was not dead, and so we must not forget. He called out the North for its “docility” to the system of slavery, calling it “disgraceful and shocking,” and said only a few had the tenacity to call it out, naming John Quincy Adams, John P. Hale, Joshua R. Gidelings, Salmon P. Chase, B. F. Wade and Charles Sumner as men who stood for equality.


Then his speech shifted as he noted that “something must come after freedom.” Douglass’ speech from this point on carries similar themes to his speech nearly twenty years earlier. He said, “… that our emancipation was important and that our enfranchisement was more important still, but that the thing of all commanding and transcendent importance is the character we form…”


Douglass contradicted the religious notion that our treasures were to come in an afterlife and told the Black people in his audience that it was not a sin to lift oneself out of poverty. He specifically gave advice to invest in money-making opportunities so that they could sustain themselves and their community. He extolled the value of property-owning.


At times Douglass seems to speak the philosophy of what will soon after be associated with Booker T. Washington. Like Douglass, Washington had been born enslaved. Upon emancipation, he worked as a child laborer in the West Virginia coal mines before seeking an education. Washington promoted self-sufficiency, Black economic freedom, and dignity in skilled labor. He basically argued that if allowed to do their own thing and achieve economic freedom, Black people would leave other parts of the system alone and therefore, Black and white people could life in relative harmony. To our ears today, it feels submissive and naïve. In context of the racial violence of the South, it was a message of survival. In fact, Washington cared deeply about civil rights and equality.


At other times, we more forcefully hear in Douglass’ speech the philosophy that would become associated with Black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, who championed the idea of racial uplift through classical education and a model elite. He even proposed that elite be the “Talented Tenth” or top ten percent of Black Americans.


Similarly, Douglass declared, “Until colored people can point to successful and prosperous men among them, it will be idle to talk much of their equality with the white race. While all other varieties of the human family… can come here and make themselves good citizens, and acquire comfortable homes and even make themselves rich, if we move on year to without improving our physical condition, we shall dwindle and go down under the weight of the popular judgement concerning us.” What did Atwood, the Goodriges or Black physician Dr. Charles Ellis think when hearing that charge? How did Atwood square the notion that Black people needed value their labor and earn highly with his desire to run his sawmills at the highest possible profit? And, let us not forget that these ideas were not abstract; an active lumber strike was taking place in early August.


Historian Clint Smith noted that Douglass “helped the country to confront the ways that it was failing to live up to its promise” of equality. And Smith reminds us that Black ideas about the best ways to achieve justice and equality were not then, nor now, monolithic. We tend to view Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois as representatives of divergent ideas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but this East Saginaw speech by Frederick Douglass shows us a moment when these philosophies on uplift merged into one overarching theme.


The Saginaw Evening News reported the full text of Douglass’ speech. The reporter lauded Douglass and hoped that Black people would take the message of self-sufficiency to heart so that they could “be a benefit to that race.” Perhaps he missed the part when Douglass spoke directly to white people, saying, “measure not the colored man from the heights you have attained, but rather from the depths from which he has come. Those depths into which you plunged him and held him for two centuries. Consider not what he has yet to do, but, rather what he has already done, and what he is still doing in the way of improvement, and the terrible odds against which he has to contend in the battle of life.”


The ”Ten Hours or No Sawdust” strike ended in late August with victory for the lumber barons. The strikers achieved a ten-hour day, but only with reduced wages, so the ultimate goal of maintaining the value of their labor was lost.


Frederick Douglass’ visit to East Saginaw in 1885 shows us different ideas on how Black progress could be achieved. Some of his ideas would soon diverge under the leadership of Washington and Du Bois, but the Emancipation Celebration speech reminds us how ideas developed – and the very past itself – remains nuanced. And yet, despite the lack of easy answers, we still see a foundation laid for the equity and justice work yet to come.



Sources:

John Vincent Jezierski, Enterprising Images: The Goodridge Brothers, African American Photographers, 1847-1922 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000).


“The City,” The Enterprise, East Saginaw, February 6, 1868, p. 4.


“Full Text of the Address Delivered by Hon. Frederick Douglass at the Arbeiter Hall Last Evening,” Saginaw Evening News, August 5, 1885.


Recommended Reading:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; an American Slave, 1845

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1901

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903