Before Memorial Day was called Memorial Day, many locations observed it as Decoration Day, a day set aside to remember the United States soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Frederick Douglass often found himself speaking at such events, and gave one of his most famous speeches at an 1871 observance. But today we’ll not be examining that particular Decoration Day speech, but another over a decade later.
When Douglass spoke in 1871, sweeping and progressive changes were afoot. The Fifteenth Amendment, giving the vote to all black American males, had been adopted. The first black United States Senator and Representative were both in office. The Ku Klux Act, specifically battling white supremacist groups, was passed by Congress. And while some states, like North Carolina, were showing signs of regression, all told, things were looking up.
But in 1894, when Douglass spoke at Rochester, New York’s Decoration Day ceremonies, the Jim Crow era had taken root. 1Nailing down exactly when Douglass spoke hasn’t been easy. David Blight places it in 1894. I’ve accepted this date, but still question it. Rochester’s monument was dedicated in 1892, and yet, Douglass speaks as if the monument was something that might happen in the future. Still, I’ve seen 1894 from several different sources (which, true, could all go back to a single incorrect source), and with nothing else to go on, I’ve little choice but to accept it. It had been over twenty years since racist conservative legislatures had been re-established all across the South – complete with former Confederates taking back their former seats of power. It had been over a decade since the Supreme Court had overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, deeming it unconstitutional.
Mississippi, in 1890, had rewritten its own constitution, legally disfranchising black voters, and many other states were about to follow suit. By 1894, lynchings of black Americans were skyrocketing – there would be 134 the year Douglass spoke in Rochester. 2According to the Tuskegee figures, which are probably low. These can be found here, but understand that the figures for “white” include every race that is not black, including Chinese, Latino, Native American, Japanese, etc.
The Lost Cause had been firmly implanted in the South for a full generation. Its mythos was now seeping northward, infecting and changing the memory of the war and its causes. This naturally led to a false reconciliation, with Blue & Gray gatherings happening more frequently. The focus shifted from the reasons the Civil War was fought to simply leaving the past in the past. The shared experience between soldiers of both sides was the bonding agent, and while this is understandable, the black soldiers were largely left out. 3This is a broad concept, but perhaps David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory is a fine place to start.
The True Importance of Decoration Day
It was this amalgamation that Douglass was trying to prevent. He saw, of course, the importance of holidays such as Decoration Days, and wished for it to not become a “heartless unthinking custom.” This was why he thought it of utmost importance to remember not only the soldiers who fought in the Civil War, but also the causes for which they fought. After all, he warned, “What has happened once may happen again.”
Douglass allowed that this Decoration Day “shall share the fate of other great days,” and be slowly forgotten, replaced by “some other day more nearly allied with the wants and events” of some uncertain future. However, he was certain that the sentiments that brought them together annually “will live, flourish and bear similar fruit, forever.”
He noted the two opposing views on how the war should be remembered. The first, he said, was to treat the Southern people as if they were “always loyal and true to the government.” They had, in the estimation of many honorable men, “repented their folly, and have accepted in good faith the results of the war, and that now we should forget and forgive the past, and turn our attention entirely to the future.”
We Are Rightfully Here Today
The second view, which he more briefly described, was the understanding that “the rebellion is suppressed but not conquered; that its spirit is still abroad and only waits the chance to reassert itself in acts of flagrant disloyalty.”
Douglass very adamantly adhered to the latter, understanding it as the very reason for celebrating Decoration Day. “If rebellion was wrong and loyalty was right; if slavery was wrong and emancipation was right, we are rightfully here today.”
Though they had gathered to honor the loyal men who fought, he argued that what they fought against, though dead, was also necessary to remember.
“The motto that tells us to speak naught but good of the dead, does not apply here. Death has no power to change moral qualities. What was bad before the war, and during the war, has not been made good since the war. Besides, though the rebellion is dead, though slavery is dead, both rebellion and slavery have left behind influences which will remain with us, it may be, for generations to come.”
A Rebellion for Slavery
To the South’s Lost Cause revisionism, he now turned, taking each of the talking points to task. He addressed those who said that the South went to war for independence, for liberty, and the right to govern itself. But, Douglass countered, the Southern people shared in all of these things with their Northern brothers.
He lamented that though most uprisings throughout history were for freedom, this late uprising was not. “Here was a rebellion,” asserted Douglass, “not for freedom, but for slavery; not to break fetters, but to forge them; not to secure the blessings of liberty, but to bind with chains millions of the human race.”
He lamented that it came not from the lowly class of people, but from those in control, “not from the oppressed, but from the oppressor.”
And though there was a movement to forgive the transgressions of the past, this was something he would not be able to forget.
“I am not indifferent to the claims of a generous forgetfulness, but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”
Painting the Horrors of Southern Victory
Douglass went on to unravel what might have come if the South had been allowed to secede. To his mind, “peace would have been impossible.” He reasoned that if these two opposing ideals could not live together, how could they live separately and yet still maintain a peaceful border?
“Who could,” Douglass asked, “paint the horrors of the wars and incursions which would have reddened the line running east and west, separating two governments, one based upon Liberty and Equality, and the other upon slavery and race inferiority? Would not the raw edges of such a line be always chafing and bleeding? Heavy as has been the cost of war, would not a heavier one have fallen upon the country had the war failed?”
He also considered the fate of the emancipated, questioning whether liberty was truly better than slavery. Ultimately, he concluded that even such a question was “derived from shallow and imperfect reflection.” Douglass allowed that the condition of the black community was “not what it ought to be,” but implored his audience to “measure their progress, not from the heights to which they may in time attain, but from the depths from which they have come.”
Concluding his speech, Douglass suggested a monument to commemorate “the unfaltering courage, the unswerving fidelity, the heroic self-sacrifice of your sons and brothers, during the late war.”
It would be, he continued, “a just tribute to the dead, and a noble inspiration to the living.” Such a monument would inspire future generations to draw inspiration “by studying the deeds of their fathers, which saved their country to peace, to union, and to liberty.”
It was this liberty that meant so much to Frederick Douglass. This was the freedom for which he had fought for so long. He had seen slavery grow, and had seen it defeated. Now, he feared, he was seeing it come to life once more.
Douglass was not wrong. Though slavery never returned in name, the Jim Crow era would only be ended by the blood and endurance of these future generations. But though Douglass wished for these generations to draw inspiration from monuments dedicated to the cause of Union and Liberty, the coming decades would allow white supremacy and the Lost Cause mythology to corrupt and defile not only the South, but the entire nation.
The speech in its entirety can be read here. 4I found this speech on the Library of Congress site, but a proper text transcript was not available for it. It could be viewed on scans of mimeographed typed pages as well as scans of handwritten pages. I used both create the text version you see here.
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|1.||⇡||Nailing down exactly when Douglass spoke hasn’t been easy. David Blight places it in 1894. I’ve accepted this date, but still question it. Rochester’s monument was dedicated in 1892, and yet, Douglass speaks as if the monument was something that might happen in the future. Still, I’ve seen 1894 from several different sources (which, true, could all go back to a single incorrect source), and with nothing else to go on, I’ve little choice but to accept it.|
|2.||⇡||According to the Tuskegee figures, which are probably low. These can be found here, but understand that the figures for “white” include every race that is not black, including Chinese, Latino, Native American, Japanese, etc.|
|3.||⇡||This is a broad concept, but perhaps David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory is a fine place to start.|
|4.||⇡||I found this speech on the Library of Congress site, but a proper text transcript was not available for it. It could be viewed on scans of mimeographed typed pages as well as scans of handwritten pages. I used both create the text version you see here.|