Becoming Frederick Douglass
“Prophet of Freedom”
During the evening session on the second day of the 1855 convention at Troy, Frederick Douglass delivers a prophetic speech about an inevitable civil war in the United States:
“It is very evident that the great question now before the American people—the question upon which the nation will soon be called to decide—is Slavery. Or in other words, the question now before this nation is whether Southern oppression, and Southern slaveholding institutions, shall be allowed to prevail in every part of this great Republic—or whether the institutions of equity, honor and human brotherhood [shall prevail] upon the American people, and each party is marshaling its adherents for the grand conflict.”
Douglass then recites statistical data about the wealth and political power of slaveholders that had left the nation morally bankrupt. Much of what Douglass professes came from the numerous speeches he had delivered over the years.
But, by 1855, Douglass also had reached a plateau in his career where he commanded the attention of a national audience more than ever. In an editorial on January 27, 1855, only a week after issuing the call for the convention in Troy, he had proclaimed that the “the days of the Black Power are numbered” (a coined phrase for the slavocracy). By August, his new political autobiography, My Bondage, My Freedom, was released and it soon became another bestseller: “five thousand copies in the first two days and fifteen thousand within three months” (Blight 253). Hence, when published as “The Encroachments of the Slave Power,” his speech appears as part of the Troy convention’s proceedings in the Frederick Douglass Paper and several other newspapers, his voice amplified even more in print.
Thus, at the convention and for a broader audience, Douglass affirms a commitment to continue the fight for freedom, considering, “[n]o man is really free south of Mason & Dixon’s Line but the slaveholder. And soon no man north of Mason & Dixon’s Line will be free but he who will succumb to the demands of the slaveholders” (Minutes, p. 94). Less than five years later, with mounting sectional tensions, Douglass’ vision is realized at the start of the American Civil War.
In his colossal undertaking of presenting Frederick Douglass as a “prophet of freedom,” David W. Blight’s recent biography probes layers of his subject’s life to reveal the making of an icon: “Douglass was a living prophet of an American destruction, exile, war for existence, and redemption” (Blight xviii). His portrait is complex and arresting, just as you would expect to find in studying anyone like Frederick Douglass who seemed to have lived several lives simultaneously.
This exhibit takes a closer look at one facet of Douglass’ life, his initiation and ascendancy in the Colored Conventions movement. In doing so, this exhibit wants you to understand Douglass’ deliberate actions and the impact of his words as he engaged in organized forums amongst the leaders of Black America. Sparring partners and allies, many individuals helped the once fugitive to emerge as the foremost black activist-intellectual of the antebellum era, while they mostly faded into the background. But, Douglass stayed true to his maxim—“Let each man do his duty. Let him continue to agitate in the circle in which he moves” (emphasis added, “Doom of Black Power” 444). As agitator and author, he remained rooted in the organizational leadership of the colored conventions. The goal of this exhibit has been to witness the evolution of a man, his message, and the movement that helped him become Frederick Douglass!