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Frederick Douglass, an Alternative Truth

Who was Frederick Douglass? More importantly, why does Frederick Douglass matter to today’s America? The above questions are not merely rhetorical, as the recent controversy surrounding President Trump’s Black History Month statement illustrate.

by Armstrong Williams

7 Feb 2017

“Frederick Douglass,” Trump said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

The mainstream media have caste Trump’s curious mixture of both past and present tenses — “who’s done” (past) vs. “is being recognized” (present) — as an incongruous construction at best, and at worst as clueless invocation of one of America’s most beloved and revered historical figures. But there is certainly an alternative view to be had.

The alternative view is that whatever the President’s intended form of language or actual prior knowledge Frederick Douglass, Douglass is certainly an example of excellence.  Furthermore, especially during Black History Month, Douglass is receiving heightened recognition.

Frederick Douglass was of course born into slavery and was possibly fathered by a member of his enslaver’s own family.  Although he was illiterate as a child, his enslaver’s wife saw a deep yearning to learn in Douglass and begun to teach him to read. Once her husband found out about this, he immediately put a stop to the lessons and forbade his wife from continuing to teach Douglass.  The system of slavery required as a fundamental principle that slaves be kept in ignorance, lest they begin to challenge the injustice that was being pressed on them.

Douglass, who even as a child realized that the secret to his ultimate freedom was knowledge, found clever ways around the reading ban.  The most successful ruse involved recruiting the young white boys he befriended around the neighborhood.  Many of them were hungry, while Douglass had free access to a pantry full of bread supplied by his enslavers.  Douglass would always take a book out with him when he was sent on errands, and when he encountered a young friend, he would ask for help reading the words.  Although some may have been initially reluctant to help him, they usually became quite eager to help once they realized Douglass had bread to share.

 Douglass, like any great entrepreneur, saw a means of exchanging a thing of value to others (bread) in order to receive something that was much more valuable to himself (knowledge). Douglass’ entrepreneurial approach to learning ultimately helped him gain his freedom (when he ran away from the plantation he knew how to make his way to Baltimore because he had voraciously read and completely memorized maps and road signs).  This simple yet powerful lesson is instructive of the personal power we all have to rise up from whatever personal or social circumstances that may be preventing us from achieving our dreams.


The alternative narrative is that Frederick Douglass, while a black hero, was also so much more. He was a notable early leader of the Republican Party.  He championed the woman’s right to vote at a time when it was not politically popular.  He also served as Washington D.C.’s first Post Master General — entrusted by the President to manage the most sensitive correspondence during the height of the Civil War.

Douglass was also one the best and most sought after orators of his day.  He traveled around the country extensively talking about the ills of slavery and oppression.  His stance as a pro-abolition speaker and activist at the time took courage and conviction. As Douglass was fond of saying, “The man who is right is a majority. We, who have God and conscience on our side, have a majority against the universe.”

The alternative view is that it is great that he is being recognized more and more.

Frederick Douglass, an Alternative Truth
The Frederick Douglass Statue in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitors Center, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Congressional leaders dedicated the statue during a ceremony on June 19, 2013. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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    1. I suspect that most people don’t know who he is, and that is a shame. I discovered him online, but I should have been taught about him in school. This quote of his has been my “signature” on the forum for several years, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.” Frederick Douglass

    2. Ed, Thanks for pointing out that Trump is still learning ( as we all should be ) and is quick to point out the good qualities of others. Both excellent qualities for any leader !!!
      Don’t you agree ?

  1. A very good article Mrs. Nancy Oakley and here is my contribution here.

    On March 18, 1877, Frederick Douglass became the first African American confirmed by the U. S. Senate to serve in a presidential appointment.

    May 26, 2016 The First African Americans Elected to Congress

    These were the first African Americans elected to office. Many people don’t know much about them. Here are a few facts that might surprise you.

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