Statewide readings celebrate famous abolitionist speech

Photo courtesy Vt. Humanities Council
Frederick Douglass

For the fifth consecutive year, communities around Vermont in the coming weeks will host participatory public readings of the famous Independence Day speech given by abolitionist Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852.

So far, free events are scheduled in 22 communities where people can gather to reflect on the piece’s historic perspective on the meaning of independence.

The readings are organized by the Vermont Humanities Council.

Participating communities include towns large and small. Nearby readings are scheduled for July 1 at 3 p.m. at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, July 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Deborah Rawson Memorial Library in Jericho, and July 21 at noon at the South Burlington Public Library at University Mall. Other locations include libraries in Montpelier and at St. Michael’s College.

In 1852, Douglass, a prominent orator and abolitionist, was asked to speak at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In his provocative speech, Douglass said: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”

The speech remains thought-provoking more than a century and a half after he gave it. Tyler Alexander helped organize a reading at the Old Stone House Museum in Derby in 2017.

“Some of the readers were obviously choked with emotion as they read. We held a discussion after the speech, in which many of the members compared the political turbulence of the 1850s with the political turbulence of our own time,” he said.

Inspired by a similar effort at the Community Change, Inc. Library on Racism in Boston, the program has grown in Vermont from four events in 2014 and to 30 last year. More information and the complete event list are online at vermonthumanities.org.

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