Black history, our history, American history is a complicated matter riddled with facts that make us proud and others that make us cringe. It is a story of a nation built by men and women who sacrificed their lives to force America to live up to its promise. These men and women were also full of contradictions. Frederick Douglass was one of those contradictions. He is remembered as a writer, abolitionist and orator. He was a human rights activist before the label existed. Yet, he also vehemently opposed the Great Migration of black from the South to the North to escape the crippling shackles of Jim Crow
Read Douglass’ bio.
Douglass was born in February 1800s in Tuckahoe, MD. In his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” he wrote that he did not know his exact birthdate. Most of references to Douglass focuses on Douglass’ post-slavery life as an influential abolitionist and a human rights activist. Before he became the great statesman, and the first African American to be nominated for vice-president, Douglass was an educator.
He secretly taught himself to read and write and then he taught fellow slaves. He was traded to several different slave owners in Maryland, including a brutal farmer known as a “slave breaker.” Douglass finally escaped to New York. It is ironic that Douglass who so believed in equality and who himself escaped North lamented the black exodus from the South in the late 1800s during the early years of Jim Crow. He urged blacks to tough it out.
Below are a few quotes from Douglass quotes, compiled by the Gilder Lehrman Center of the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition, regarding the black exodus North.
The Negro, long deemed to be too indolent and stupid to discover and adopt any rational measure to secure and defend his rights as a man…. He has, discovered and adopted a measure which may assist very materially in, the solution of some of the vital problems involved in his sudden elevation: from slavery to freedom, and from chattelhood to manhood, and citizenship . . . he has adopted a simple, lawful and peaceable measure. It is emigration—the quiet withdrawal of his valuable bones and muscles from a condition of things which he considers no longer tolerable.
This exodus has revealed to southern men the humiliating fact that the prosperity and civilization of the South are at the mercy of the despised and hated Negro . . . .
We have the story of the emigrants themselves, and if any can reveal the true cause of this Exodus they can . . . They tell us with great unanimity that they are very badly treated at the South . . .
[As a strategy, however] it is a surrender, a premature, disheartening surrender, since it would make freedom and free institutions depend upon migration rather than protection; by flight, rather than right . . . It leaves the whole question of equal rights on the soil of the South open and still to be settled . . . it is a confession of the utter unpracticability of equal rights and equal protection in any State, where those rights may be struck down by violence . . .