You cannot teach a slave how to read and write

Because if you do, it will unfit him to be a slave

President Donald Trump opened Black History Month by mentioning the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 and died in 1895.

Kenneth Morris Jr. talking:

both of my ancestors, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, were born into slavery. And they were born into the most horrific conditions that a human being could be subjected to. But yet, through the power of education, both of my ancestors understood from a very young age that education equals freedom.

And for Frederick Douglass, at the age of nine years old, he was sent from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he was born on a plantation, to go to Baltimore to be the house servant for his master’s brother. And when he got there, his slave mistress had never had slaves before, and she didn’t know that it was illegal to teach him to read and write, so she began to teach young Frederick his ABCs. But when his master found out about it, he got angry, and he forbade it. And he looked at Frederick, and he looked at his wife Sophia, and he said, “You cannot teach a slave how to read and write, because if you do, it will unfit him to be a slave.” And Frederick looked at his master, and he heard that message loud and clear, and he understood right then and there that education would be his pathway to freedom.

At the age of 20 in 1838, he would have the courage to run away from slavery. He would eventually settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts. And instead of just saying, “I’m free now. I’ll start a family and get a job,” he looked back, and he saw that there was this institution of legalized slavery that needed to be dismantled. And he, along with the other abolitionists, got to work and worked on ending slavery. He became an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln, and then a statesman, the first African American to be nominated for vice president. He was counsel general to Haiti. And his contributions really tell us that he was a true American hero.

– the property in Maryland where Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten, Mount Misery because he was considered a troublesome slave, was bought right around the beginning of the Iraq War by, at the time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Frederick Douglass fled, went north, went into the—took refuge in the printing press building here in New York City of a free black man born in Connecticut named David Ruggles. So, Ruggles had this printing press, and your great-great-great-grandfather Frederick Douglass founded The North Star newspaper.

When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery around the age of 22 years old, he saw that this new, emerging technology of photography would be something that would help him make his arguments for liberation and equality in the same way that his writings and his speeches would. So he was somebody that understood from a very young age that you could use the communication tools that you have at your disposal to be able to communicate a message to a wider audience.

And when he started The North Star newspaper, it became the leading abolitionist voice, and it was where he could talk about the inhumanity of slavery. He could tell the world, tell the country, about what he went through on Mount Misery when the slave breaker Edward Covey tried to break his spirit and tried to break him down so that he would be at the level of a brute. But he didn’t allow that to happen, and he had this spirit that just rose up inside of him. And he and Covey, if you know the story, they had an epic two-hour battle in which Frederick struck his own blow for his own liberation.

So The North Star newspaper was a place where he could go, and many other abolitionists, to be able to talk about slavery and really shape the public consciousness on what slavery was really about, because those that were pro-slavery, and the federal government, who made it illegal to teach a slave how to read and write, put it out there that these were Africans, that they were savages, that—savages, they were better off in slavery, and at least they were getting some level of care. And Frederick Douglass, when he came out and when he wrote, he shattered that notion. He shattered the notion in the public consciousness that slavery was not something that was a good thing for enslaved Africans.

– Frederick Douglass’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln

they met on at least three occasions. And the occasion that I like to talk about most when we’re talking to young people, when we’re talking to students, was the third visit to the White House, which was right after Lincoln’s inauguration. And Frederick Douglass was front and center when Lincoln delivered his inaugural address. And then, after that speech, Douglass was invited to the White House for the gala, or, as my daughters would say, the after-party. And when he got there, they wouldn’t let him in. They wouldn’t let him in because he was black. It didn’t matter that he had written three best-selling autobiographies, that he was the leader of the abolitionist movement. None of that mattered. And when word got back to President Lincoln that he was outside, he said, “Oh, no, you come on in. Let him in.” And as they’re walking toward each other—and Douglass was very tall, as was Lincoln, and if you can imagine these imposing figures just towering over the guests—and President Lincoln points out, and he said, “Here comes my friend Frederick Douglass. I want to know what you thought about my speech, because there’s no person’s opinion that I value more than yours.” And Douglass said that it was a sacred effort.

– Frederick Douglass is famous for saying in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”

we know that Frederick Douglass always spoke the truth. And I imagine if he were here today, he would be railing against injustice. He would be railing against inequality. And he would hold all of us accountable, but especially the administration, to make sure that the poor and the oppressed and people of color and every American is lifted up. You know, Booker T. Washington said, “If you want to lift up yourself, lift up someone else.”

Kenneth Morris
founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington.

— source


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s