On more than one occasion, Frederick Douglass was on hand to remind citizens about sacrifices made on behalf of others in this country.
For example, on May 30, 1871, he spoke on Decoration Day, which is now known as Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery, saying:
“Friends and Fellow Citizens:
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.”
On May 30, 1881, again on Decoration Day, Frederick Douglass spoke on the 14th Anniversary of Storer College located in Harpers Ferry (full text version is available online. See Selected Research attached). One of the lesser quoted passages is this:
‘During his last visit to us in Rochester there appeared in the newspapers a touching story connected with the horrors of the Sepoy War in British India. A Scotch missionary and his family were in the hands of the enemy, and were to be massacred the next morning. During the night, when they had given up every hope of rescue, suddenly the wife insisted that relief would come. Placing her ear close to the ground she declared she heard the Slogan – the Scotch war song. For long hours in the night no member of the family could hear the advancing music but herself. “Dinna ye hear it? Dinna ye hear it?” she would say, but they could not hear it. As the morning slowly dawned a Scotch regiment was found encamped indeed about them, and they were saved from the threatened slaughter. This circumstance, coming at such a time, gave Capt. Brown a new word of cheer. He would come to the table in the morning his countenance fairly illuminated, saying that he had heard the Slogan, and he would add, “Dinna ye hear it? Dinna ye hear it?” Alas! like the Scotch missionary I was obliged to say ‘No.’ Two weeks prior to the meditated attack, Capt. Brown summoned me to meet him in an old stone quarry on the Conecochequi river, near the town of Chambersburgh, Penn. His arms and ammunition were stored in that town and were to be moved on to Harper’s Ferry. In company with Shields Green I obeyed the summons, and prompt to the hour we met the dear old man, with Kagi, his secretary, at the appointed place. Our meeting was in some sense a council of war. We spent the Saturday and succeeding Sunday in conference on the question, whether the desperate step should then be taken, or the old plan as already described should be carried out. He was for boldly striking Harper’s Ferry at once and running the risk of getting into the mountains afterwards. I was for avoiding Harper’s Ferry altogether. Shields Green and Mr. Kagi remained silent listeners throughout. It is needless to repeat here what was said, after what has happened. Suffice it, that after all I could say, I saw that my old friend had resolved on his course and that it was idle to parley. I told him finally that it was impossible for me to join him. I could see Harper’s Ferry only as a trap of steel, and ourselves in the wrong side of it. He regretted my decision and we parted.”
The Bucks County Gazette had an article about this event in its June 2, 1881 edition which said:
“On Decoration Day the Citizens of Harper’s Ferry had reason to wet their eyes. Fred Douglass, as part of the decoration ceremonies, delivered an historical oration on John Brown. Quite a number of Confederates and Old Virginians gathered to hear him. Among the latter was Mr. Hunter, who was the State’s Attorney who prosecuted Brown. When Douglass had finished his oration, Mr. Hunter was one of the first to congratulate him.”
This weekend on Saturday, June 2, almost 131 years to the day of this historic speech, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park are sponsoring an African-American Hike on National Trails Day.
Coincidence? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them!
The Hike is being held from 10:30 am until 2 pm
Linked below is a list of Selected Research to complement the hike. Steam at Harper’s Ferry features Victorian and Steampunk art and gifts. It also has original Civil War period newspapers, historic postcards and other Harper’s Ferry related items for purchase and on display.