The Wrong Year, 1917
Frederick Douglass cared about where and when he was born. As an adult, he was on a “lifelong quest for information about his birth.” (William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass). Douglass for years had calculated that he had been born in 1817.
When Douglass finally met Thomas Auld, the slave owner who had raised him as a young boy, he learned differently. Auld, now a dying man, told him that Douglass had been born in February, 1818, while his mother, Harriet Bailey, had been owned by Auld’s father-in-law, Aaron Anthony. The 1818 date was later confirmed by Dickson Preston, when he examined the records of Aaron Anthony’s slave holdings. (See Dickson J. Preston’s Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
Rochester, however, held a celebration of the centennial of Douglass’ birth in 1917. The event, sponsored by the Frederick Douglass Commemorative Society, took place at Convention Hall on February 15, 1917.
In attendance were:
- New York Governor Charles Whitman, escorted by nine guardsmen from the Fifteenth New York Regiment of the National Guard of New York City. Gov. Whitman called attention to “the lesson in the life of Douglass. It is not that he rose so high, but that he started so frightfully low.” He went on, “At all times, it may be said, Douglass was an agitator rather than a builder like Booker Washington. I say this in no spirit of detraction, for the agitator plays a necessary and important part in God’s scheme of things. Agitators are sometimes the very torches that set fire to public indignation.”
- Mayor Hiram Edgerton, who said, “It is peculiarly fitting that Rochester should honor the memory of him who, besides being a great scholar and the leader of his race on the American continent, was our neighbor. The celebration in his memory is of unusual interest to me because I knew him, and my father knew him and was closely associated with him in caring for fugitive slaves by way of the underground railway, before the civil war.”
- John W. Thompson, President of the Commemorative Society, who had been instrumental in having the monument to Douglass erected in 1899 (and later moved to Highland Park).
- E. D. W. Jones, pastor of the African Methodist Zion Church.
- Haley G. Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass, who had graduated from Harvard University in the Class of 1905.
Gov. Whitman pointed out that Douglass had been honored by four U.S. Presidents. President Grant “recognized his real ability as well as his tremendous service, and conferred upon him the first important office ever held by a negro.” He also enjoyed “the confidence and esteem of President Hayes and President Garfield and President Arthur continued him in their high regard, even as Lincoln had admired and trusted him.”
In 1889, the Bethel Literary Society of Washington, DC, held a surprise 71st birthday observance for Douglass at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church. Douglass would only live another six years. The thoughts that he expressed in his speech at that event are a powerful reminder of his life. He said, “I was born a slave and slaves were born at times—in market time, water-melon time, sweet potato time—in fact at any time they could, but always in hard times. But they had no birthday. The first birthday I ever heard of was George Washington’s birthday, and a man less distinguished than he has no business to have people making a noise about his birthday.”
He thanked the Literary Society for the “respect and kind appreciation implied and expressed in the notice you have been pleased to take on my 71st birthday has awakened in me a sentiment which no words of mine are quite strong enough to express…I think I understand what you mean by this demonstration. It is not for any ability or attainments of which I can personally boast. You notice me on the only ground upon which I have any claim on your consideration and that is that during nearly fifty years of my life I have been an unflinching, unflagging and uncompromising advocate and defender of the oppressed. When the slave was a slave I demanded his emancipation, and when he was free, I demanded his perfect freedom—all the safeguards of freedom. In whatever else I may have failed, in this I have not failed.”
His final message: “And I can now only say in conclusion, that with the help of God, in the future as in the past, while life shall endure, you shall find me faithful in the support of every movement and measure looking to the enlightenment and improvement of our yet much oppressed, abused and slandered people.”