I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
—Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852)
The Fourth of July inspires both celebration and reflection. Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence proclaimed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights—yet, this founding father’s claim that “all men are created equal” fell woefully short for those African Americans in bondage and those who were marginally free. Their battles for freedom required sustained, and often costly, efforts. For many of their descendants, this righteous struggle remains a self-evident truth.
Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery but became one of the nation’s great abolitionists, well understood this and expressed it in one of his best-known orations, an address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-slavery Society at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY, on July 5, 1852. The full text of “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” runs to over 10,000 words and takes over an hour to deliver. Douglass made the address more than 10 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, and more than 13 years prior to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, in December 1865, which formally abolished slavery across the United States.
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence," he said, "bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
Still for many African Americans, the Fourth of July, along with Juneteenth, remains a moment to salute Black liberation and an independent spirit that has persevered over the centuries.
To mark Independence Day this year, which falls at a time of national debate in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has curated a virtual exhibition that focuses on the abolitionists and activists who fought diligently to ensure that the new nation’s proclamations of freedom would not exclude Black people indefinitely. Their essays, speeches, political organizing, fugitive flights, and rebellions in the face of what Frederick Douglass labeled “the gross injustice and cruelty” of enslavement secure their place as founding fathers and mothers of freedom. Drawing on the Schomburg Center’s vast holdings, this exhibition honors their bold strategies to secure Black liberation and true equality for all on this Independence Day.
The full text of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” can be found in The Portable Frederick Douglass, edited by John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which is available on the Library’s free e-reader app, SimplyE.