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Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass Bicentennial
As the city of Bristol, UK gears up to mark 200 years since the birth of Frederick Douglass (May 28, 1818), Historian Dr Edson Burton talks to us about Douglass' tour of the UK in the mid 1800s, and how this great American made a huge difference to the abolitionist movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
Published on May 18, 2018

Dr Edson Burton Frederick Douglass: An Abolitionist returns to Bristol emerged from conversations between the Bristol Old Vic team, Colston Hall and Bristol-based writer and historian Dr Edson Burton.

Thank you Edson for talking to us about Frederick Douglass, especially as Bristol is celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth date on May 28th. It's impossible to sum up the amazing life and works of Frederick Douglass in a few words, but if you only had 3 words to sum up the man, what would they be?

Courageous, integrity, indefatigable.

Your academic specialisms include the Transatlantic Slave Trade and African-American history  - what inspired you to study Douglass?

The life of Frederick Douglass is the most extraordinary story of personal transformation that I have come across and yet he is largely unheard of the in the UK. Given the dramatic arc of his biography it is surprising that in recent cinematic treatments of slavery, he has not made his way to the big screen. As a film programmer and historian, one is aware that film has the power to bring into light the under illuminated aspects of history. Douglass is perfect for dramatic treatment – he was intersectional before the term was coined, he was international in perspective and pragmatic in politics. I wanted to do my bit to increase awareness of his inspirational career. The fact he was until this year largely unknown in Britain is a kind of injustice both to his legacy and to a community's self image.

Douglass started his famous tour of the UK in 1845 - what drew him to visit the UK, and what did Britain make of him when he arrived?

Douglass was partly avoiding the danger of his re-enslavement in the USA. He was a fugitive from slavery and could fall prey to the fugitive slave bill. But I think more importantly he came to the UK to raise funds for the abolitionist cause and to win British hearts and minds to the cause. Douglass was acutely aware that abolition had to win the propaganda war against the South. Offering his presence, image, his story, his impassioned speeches were the key weapons in the battle.

Victoria Rooms in Bristol Douglass spoke at the Victoria Rooms during his tour of Bristol in 1846

In 1846, Douglass toured Bristol, and the city are celebrating this tour as part of their day commemorating Douglass' Bicentenial on May 28. As a significant city in the history of the Transatlantic slave trade, what did Douglass do when he visited, and what impact did his visit have on the city?

On the invitation of Bristol's anti-slavery society, Douglass spoke at the main Baptist Church in the city and in our major civic space, the Victoria Rooms. He applauded Britain's abolition of slavery 12 years previously, and in the same breath contrasted this with the maintenance of slavery in the American South. He appealed to Christian conscience, whilst highlighting the hypocrisy of UK and American churches for holding communion with slave owners. Douglass was so scathing that his fellow American abolitionists, including William Garrison, were often concerned he would upset his audiences. I think for Douglass the urgency of speaking for 'three million slaves' dispelled the urge to caution. But the fact Douglass was on a fund-raising tour led to the omission, in his speeches, of matters that must have occurred to him. His praise of England was fulsome but the trade had only been abolished over a decade before. It is also worth bearing in mind that slave produced cotton was being processed in the city's mills.

What effect did Douglass have on feelings towards the slave trade in the UK as a whole?

Douglass spoke to thousands during his tour. His words were avidly reported in the major newspapers of the cities he visited, and by the national press. Interjections and applause are noted in the reports written by journalists. He, without a doubt, disrupted the narrative of slavery's respectability and led thousands across the country to oppose the continuance of the trade in the Southern states. The increase in giving to the abolitionist cause provides further evidence of his impact. We must also bear in mind that in a world where people of African descent were still regarded as intellectually inferior, Douglass was a living riposte to racism.

How will you be taking part in Bristol's series of events?

I am part of various conversations across the city that are trying to create a sustained commemoration of the Transatlantic slave trade, and to find ways in which this, my adopted city, can share new and existing resources to challenge the inequalities that are part of slavery's long term legacy. Unlike the US, Bristol's Black population are not descended from slaves born in its borders, but the economic underdevelopment of the Caribbean islands from which many of today's Black population have come, the racial discrimination that have confined the descendants of these Caribbean migrants is a direct result of 400 years of slavery. As an artist I will be creating new works that will be part of this year of change. But I feel that this is just the beginning of my creative journey with Frederick Douglass.

If you could choose one of Douglass' quotes that is most poignant today, what would it be?

"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe." - From Douglass´ speech in 1886 on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation, Washington, D.C

If there's one thing that you'd like people to remember about Frederick Douglass' Life and Work, what would it be?

Douglass had a moral clarity and a commitment to a moral clarity that was quite breathtaking. He risked and lost friendships, positions, White and Black public opinion if it involved compromising what he felt to be right, responsible and just. He remains the epitome of what one would expect in a statesman.

Dr Edson Burton will be joining a series of free events taking place in Bristol on May 28 to commemorate 200 years since the birth of Frederick Douglass, including his tour of Bristol. Locations and timings can be found below, whilst more details are available from Bristol Old Vic's Website (Click Here), and registration for free participation is accessible via Eventbrite (Click Here).

Locations and Timings

8.15am Alfred Fagon Statue, Grosvenor Road Triangle, St Pauls, BS2 8YA
10.00am The Seven Stars Public House, Thomas Lane, BS1 6JG
10.30am Queen Square, BS1 4LH
11.00am Marsh Street, Telephone Avenue, BS1 4AZ
12.00pm Inside Bristol Cathedral, College Green, BS1 5TJ
13.00pm Outside City Hall, College Green, BS1 5TJ
14.00pm Venue to be announced at a later date


Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass. Image courtesy Bristol Old Vic.

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