Howard University President Jeremiah Rankin on Dr. Frederick Douglass: “How knoweth this man letters?” … “he had the best teachers and examples the Anglo-Saxon schools could afford.”

Image result for frederick douglass readingAs a self-educated fugitive slave-scholar Dr. Frederick Douglass, when a young man in his twenties, schooled Anglo-Saxon abolitionists, politicians, philosophers and statesmen of the old world to his world of American slavery. Reciprocally, Dr. Douglass benefited from an invaluable education to the ways of oration, statecraft and moral, political and legal activism.

As previously reported here, cited by Frederic May Holland, people often asked Dr. Douglass where he received his education. To which he replied, “Massachusetts Abolition University. Mr. Garrison, President.”

In this spirit we share an excerpt from the eulogy offered by Rev. Jeremiah Rankin of Howard University at Douglass’ funeral in Washington City.

I do not at all underrate the work done by those magnificent champions of freedom, who took this young man at twenty-five into the charmed coterie of their fearless eloquence; who gave him the baptism of their approval; who laid their hands upon his head, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips and their associates.

But they needed him as much as he needed them.

After their cool and eloquent logic, after their studied irony and invective, which, mighty as it was, was wanting in the tremolo of the voice of one that has suffered, of one whose very modulations signified more than their words; when this man arose, as one rises from the dead, as the ghost of one, the crown and scepter of whose manhood has been stolen away, while he goes from land to land proclaiming the wrong and asking for justice, then the climax was reached.

This man made work of such men as Garrison and Phillips and Sumner and even Lincoln possible.

I do not wish to use the language of exaggeration. It is not fitting the occasion. It is not in keeping with the dignified manner and methods of the man whom we commemorate, or the providential movement of which he was so long a part.

But I believe the birth of Frederick Douglass into slavery was the beginning of the end; and that this was just as needful to his anti-slavery associates as to himself.

God planted a germ there, which was to burst the cruel system apart.

It was though He said, “Go to, now, ye wise men of the Great Republic, ye Websters and Clays, I will put this Samson of freedom in your temple of Dagon, and his tawny arms shall yet tumble its columns about the ears of the worshipers. I will put the ark of my covenant in the soul of this man, and the time shall come when your idol-god shall lie toppled over upon his nose in his presence.”

Image result for frederick douglass reading

Frederick Douglass in his library at Cedar Hill. LOC/NPS-FDNHS.

I think Frederick Douglass is to be congratulated on the kind of tuition that came to him; no, that God had provided for him, through these anti-slavery associates.

They were regarded as the offscouring of the earth, and yet many of them received their culture in the choicest New England schools, and they sprang from the noblest New England stock.

And when he went abroad, it was his privilege to hear such men as Cobden and Bright and Disraeli and O’Connell and Lord John Russell and Lord Broughman.

These men Mr. Douglass studied, admired and analyzed.

His more elaborate address, too, show the influence of the first and greatest of New England orators – Daniel Webster.

But even beyond the great American orator, whose model orations in all our schools-books was Mr. Douglass in the quality of fervor and fire.

Ah! that was a day when the runaway slave heard the great statesman at Bunker Hill. And he told me that he owed a great debt to the poems of Whittier.

To converse with Mr. Douglass, to hear him in public, one who knew his humble origin and limited opportunities, might well ask, “How knoweth this man letters?”

But, in the art of which he himself had such mastery, he had the best teachers and examples the Anglo-Saxon schools could afford, while not one the great men mentioned had such a theme as his.

How carefully he improved his intercourse with such men, his observations of them, one has to only read his life to discover.

Howard University, I believe, gave this man the degree of doctor laws, and there were some laws that no man knew better how to doctor than he.

But there was not an official of the University who could reach high enough to put a wreath on his brow. It had to be done from above, by the winged genius of the University.

SOURCE:

“Frederick Douglass’ Character and Career.” address by Jeremiah Rankin, President of Howard University at Metropolitan AME Church, 25 February, 1895.

Published in a variety of journals and magazines, including Our Day: The Altruistic Review, Volume XIV. January – June. (1895). p. 172 – 173

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