five things you probably don't know about frederick douglass (and u.s. history)

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight's monumental biography of that greatest of Americans, is a long, challenging, and utterly fascinating read. After waiting for months to borrow it from the library, I ended up returning the library copy and buying it from Amazon.

The book is filled with so many fascinating, inspiring, horrific, and thrilling views on some of the most pivotal moments of United States history,  including the "Second Revolution" -- the Civil War.

Here are a few random factoids.

After winning the battle for Blacks to join the
Union forces, Douglass used the slogan
Men of Color! To Arms! on his long recruiting tours. 
1. The expression "person of color" is at least 150 years old. Frederick Douglass frequently referred to African Americans as people of color.

2. When Malcolm X said "the ballot or the bullet" and "by any means necessary," he was hearkening back to Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote that Americans of colour would be freed by the ballot and the bullet -- by law and by war. He also wrote that his people would achieve their freedom "by any means possible".

3. I've long known that President Abraham Lincoln did not support emancipation, and suggested every possible compromise with the Confederate states on the issue of slavery. I did not know that Lincoln was a strong proponent of what was then called "colonization" -- moving African Americans out of the country to various other places, whether Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America. Douglass was fiercely and adamantly opposed to any colonization scheme, whether it come from the racist mainstream or abolitionist circles.

Blight writes that "the President's intentions with colonization have long been the subject of rigorous debate in Lincoln scholarship," then surveys the various historians' positions. He concludes by agreeing with the progressive historian Eric Foner: "[T]here is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Lincoln's ten years of public support for colonization." If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, etc.

4. Frederick Douglass chose his surname in honour of Scotland. Early in his self-education, Douglass had a great romantic attachment to the work of Sir Walter Scott. Later, many Scottish people, chafing at their subservient position relative to England, supported abolition and donated funds to Douglass' newspapers and speaking tours. His chosen name hearkened to the ancient and powerful Clan Douglas; he added the second S for flourish.

5. Many people have heard of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the African American soldiers who fought for their own cause in the U.S. Civil War, and who have been much celebrated in print and film. I did not know -- but of course was not surprised to learn -- that the members of the 54th were paid less than their white counterparts. Union soldiers earned $13 per week. The new Black union soldiers earned $10 per week, out of which $3 was deducted for their uniforms.

This galling inequality, along with the proscription against Black officers, led to the first meeting of an African American leader and a United States president. Douglass was called in to Lincoln's private office, to the chagrin of the many white men who he was ushered past. Many Black soldiers refused all pay in protest of the unequal treatment. Some were court-martialed and executed.

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