This week marks the debut of HBO’s new special Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches (February 23). Inspired by David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom), the documentary focuses on five seminal speeches from Douglass’s career performed by accomplished actors Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Beharie, Colman Domingo, Jonathan Majors and Denzel Whitaker.
Before you watch the project, here are five essential historical realities from 19th century America that shaped Douglass’s worldview and solidified his anti-slavery activism.
- “I Have Come to Tell You Something About Slavery” 1841
1841 marked an end to the landmark United States v. The Amistad case. In June 1839, a group of 49 enslaved Africans in route to Havana, Cuba on board the La Amistad (ironically meaning “Friendship”) succeeded in overthrowing their Spanish kidnappers. The fight for their freedom resulted in the Africans, led by a man named Joseph Cinque, killing the ship’s cook and captain (two sailors escaped in a lifeboat and two others were spared to navigate the ship). The Africans were taken into custody on the New York shoreline after the Spanish secretly altered the ship’s course along the East Coast.
A two year legal battle ensured all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the Africans were not Spanish property and therefore not ineligible to be returned to Spanish authority, as they were “not criminals” and “unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board” the Amistad ship. Cinque and his fellow survivors returned to their native Africa, leaving Spain and sympathetic U.S. southern lawmakers livid. For years afterward, bills were introduced in Congress to have the government reimburse Spain financially for their loss of human cargo.
A similar case occurred in November when a revolt on the slave ship Creole resulted in 128 liberated slaves reaching Nassau and later New Orleans where enraged southern slavers demanded monetary reimbursement for lost property.
As a former slave who literally fought his enslaver with his bare hands for hours to gain freedom, Douglass was intimately aware why the captured men and women of the Amistad and Creole risked death and torture for their liberation. To paint that picture for the masses, Douglass bravely used this first speech to publicly reveal his experiences growing up in slavery.
2. “Country, Conscience, And The Anti-Slavery Cause” 1847
In the years following his first speech, Douglass became more disillusioned with America’s unabashed racism and reluctance to embrace the abolitionist movement. A few years prior, he was physically attacked by a mob after an anti-slavery speech in Indiana, leading to hand problems for the rest of his life.
The landmark Dred Scott case began its decade-long legal battle over the rights of African-descended persons in America. Scott, who was previously enslaved in slave-holding state Missouri and then transferred to the free state Illinois, sued on the grounds that by moving to a “free” state, he was no longer legally bound to slavery. In June of 1847, Scott lost an early ruling when courts determined he had not sufficiently proven he was enslaved and not a leased servant.
With the Constitution quickly becoming the interpretative guide for any rights afforded to slavery victims, Frederick Douglass began publishing his legendary paper The North Star. He used that platform and this speech to make his feelings clear on if the Constitution could be used as a tool for liberation.
3. “What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth of July?” 1852
The most significant U.S. event this year didn’t come from the judicial, political or military arenas. In came on the literary front with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Going down as the best-selling work of the 19th century, Stowe’s anti-slavery novel spotlighted the atrocities of the peculiar institution against African Americans through the long-suffering slave Uncle Tom. The work immediately became a lightning rod nationwide. Southern slave-owners were outraged at what they deemed unfair assertions of slavery life. In contrast, many northerners used the text to help mobilize interest in the abolitionist movement.
Douglass took a supportive stance on the book despite valid criticisms of its stereotypical depictions of African American speech and behavior. With the debate around slavery now at a fever pitch, Douglass’s “What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth of July?” continued the focus on the slave’s condition and its inherent contradiction to the supposed values of one of America’s most sacred holidays.
4. ” The Proclamation And a Negro Army” (1863)
On New Year’s Day, the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed over 3.5 million enslaved African Americans under federal law.
And yet, the Civil War raged on with no clear winner in sight. While a shrewd political move by President Lincoln to destabilize one of Confederacy’s key institutions, the Proclamation was toothless in most areas still under Confederate control. In fact, many slaves would not learn of their freedom until months later.
When Douglass made this speech in February,he sought to answer naysayers who questioned whether African Americans could be capable soldiers and turn the tide decisively in the north’s favor.
5. “Lessons Of The Hour” (1894)
On March 11, 1894, the body of an unidentified “mulatto” woman was found hanging from a tree between the towns of Little Rock and Marche, Arkansas. Discovered by a group of black townspeople, the body was estimated to have been decaying for several days and had the following sign placed upon it:
The woman’s identity, the reason for the lynching, or even the culprit(s) were never determined. In 1894 alone, over 100 African Americans would fall victim to the racial terror known as lynching. Those are the documented cases. Lost to history are the ones like the “mulatto” woman, forever nameless and without justice.
Journalist and activist Ida. B. Wells had begun her extensive research into lynching two years earlier with her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases. Her analysis of numerous lynching crimes lead to her hypothesis that the surface reasoning for more most lynchings (the violation of white women) was a smokescreen to cover two main objectives — stopping black economic progress and maintaining them as second class citizens through racial terror.
Douglass lived for the majority of the 19th century, witnessing the end of slavery evolve into new terror tactics against African Americans via lynching and political disenfranchisement through legal methods like “black codes.” In the twilight of his life, he made a final public plea for America to truly embrace its founding principles.
Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches premieres February 23 at 9PM on HBO and HBO Max.