Frederick Douglass, J. Sella Martin, John Mercer Langston attend parade in Baltimore celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment [The New Era, May 26, 1870]

Library of Congress

“Not less than ten thousand colored people were in the march, and ten thousand more lined the sidewalks” at the scene of a grand parade in Baltimore on May 19, 1870 celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave male citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It had been ratified and enacted that spring. Included in the cavalcade was Anacostia Club No. 1, an advance guard of eight men with muskets leading fifty men clad in Indian costume in front of a wagon of twenty women “dressed in the costume of Indian squaws, and several of them carried in their arms infants.” The organization carried a banner proclaiming “We are the True Supporters of the Republican Party. Anacostia Club organized March 26, 1870.”

At the front of the procession were the carriages of Frederick Douglass, John Sella Martin, and John M. Langston, of Howard University, “Every class and condition was represented – old men worn out by the toll of many years of servitude; young men whose early manhood was saved from degradation by the effects of Freedom; and a great army of boys and girls, in whose lives the auction-block will not be a hideous reminiscence,” wrote The New Era.

The band played its last introductory note, the master of ceremonies spoke quickly, and Frederick Douglass was before a crowd of Baltimoreans that knew Douglass as a son of Maryland. “During the last thirty years I have often appeared before the people as a slave, sometimes as a fugitive slave, but always in behalf of the slave. But today I am permitted to appear before you as an American citizen.”  Douglass took his audience back for a moment, “When toiling on the plantation we slaves desired to talk of emancipation, but there stood the overseer, and a word could ensure a flogging.” Recalling a dexterity now known as code-switching, Douglass further told his attentive listeners, “To talk about emancipation without being discovered we invented a vocabulary, and when the overseer thought we were talking of the most simple thing we were really speaking of emancipation, but in a way that was Greek to them.” Applause and laughter broke out. “The negro has now got the three belongings of American freedom. First, the cartridge box, for when he got the eagle on his button and the musket on his shoulder he was free. Next came the ballot box; some of its most earnest advocates now hardly saw it three years ago, but we’ll forgive them now. Next we want the jury-box,” demanded Douglass.

Speaking before a large crowd of his compatriots Douglass preached, “Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school and show that besides the cartridge box, the ballot box and jury box you have also the knowledge box.” Wishful and encouraging, he said, “Build on for those who come after you. I am no orator. The orators who are to come up in hereafter the colored race will throw me and Langston far into the back ground.” Telling the crowd to “get education and get money” at all costs in order to be independent, Douglass told them, “I found that God never began to hear my prayers for liberty until I began to run. Then you ought to have seen the dust rise behind me in answer to prayer.”

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