For the past two years, the American Antiquarian Society has partnered with Mass Humanities to co-host a Worcester edition of the foundation’s interactive program “Reading Frederick Douglass in the Era of Barack Obama” in connection with the Fourth of July. We were therefore very happy to hear that the National Federation of State Humanities Councils has honored the program with the 2012 Helen and Martin Schwartz Prize for the “best all-around project” conducted by a state humanities council. Mass Humanities received the award at the Federation’s national conference in Chicago, November 15-18, 2012.
“Reading Frederick Douglass” events now take place in a growing number of communities throughout Massachusetts. Although each one is organized individually, the basic premise is for people to come together and take turns reading paragraphs from Frederick Douglass’s speech The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro from July 5, 1852, in which he questioned the irony of commemorating American independence in a nation where slavery was still legal:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.
I was introduced to “Reading Frederick Douglass” this past July 5, 2012 (the 160th anniversary of the speech itself), when I attended the program in Worcester’s City Hall Common with several other AAS staff members. After opening remarks by Worcester NAACP president Cedric Arno, we lined up with copies of the speech and each read a paragraph aloud. At the end, readers and onlookers alike recited the final paragraph in unison.
I was still a fairly new employee at AAS at the time, and attending “Reading Frederick Douglass” was not only a chance to interact with Douglass’s speech from a new perspective, but one of my first opportunities to spend time downtown on a workday. Standing in line and reading the speech with a variety of Worcester locals – including civic leaders, employees at fellow cultural organizations, and people who happened to be passing by and decided to come over – turned out to be a fascinating way to get to know the community better!
“Reading Frederick Douglass” started on Boston Common in 2009, and has grown since then. For other towns interested in starting their own versions of the program, Mass Humanities has resources available on its website: http://www.masshumanities.org/douglass. This website also has a great slideshow featuring images from the “Reading Frederick Douglass” events.
Congratulations to Mass Humanities!