David Blight on Frederick Douglass, Race and Reunion

David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, is one of the nation’s leading experts on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.  This week, students in History 118 will be reading an article of Blight’s that appeared in the Journal of American History in 1989 and served as a precursor to his prize-winning book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001).  The article, “‘For Something Beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” offers a vivid portrait of an aging and angry Douglass fighting to preserve what he believed was the central legacy of the Civil War –the promise of emancipation.  Douglass, a former runaway slave who became a great abolitionist orator and writer and the most famous black American of the nineteenth century, was distraught but still defiant over what he considered the betrayals of the “new birth of freedom” that occurred after the Civil War.  Students who read the article carefully will learn a great deal about the nuances of the period and should be able to answer a series of key questions.  For example,  how did the great orator attempt to use the 1876 dedication of a Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln to forge what Blight described as a place for blacks within the national identity?  Why did Douglass claim that “the future historian will turn to the year 1883 to find the most flagrant example of national deterioration”?   What exactly was Douglass fighting against during this period?  How important in the contest over defining the war’s legacy was the movement known as “The Lost Cause”?  Less than a year before he died, at the age of 76, Douglass sounded an especially poignant note in what became one of his famous Dedication Day speeches.  “I shall never forget the difference,” he said, “between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.”  His frustration was palpable and remains understandable but students should ask themselves how other Americans from that period, even those sympathetic to Douglass, might have reacted to such divisive commentary.

In March 2016, historian Eric Foner came to Dickinson to discuss these issues and their legacy for modern America at a special conference on Reconstruction hosted by the House Divided Project.  Here are his short comments and here is a link to the video from the entire three-day gathering.


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David Blight on Frederick Douglass, Race and Reunion — 2 Comments

  1. One of Douglass’s biggest concerns, and what he was fighting against during the last third of his life, was the country’s collective memory of the war. He was worried that people, especially white Southerners, would romanticize the Antebellum period, which was damaging to the psyches of Black people in the South, as well as dangerous to their wellbeing. Douglass felt that the government was uncommitted to preserving Republican and radical sentiments from Reconstruction, especially after the Civil Rights Cases, and in the face of the nation’s Lost Cause mentality and the racism that pursued. He felt the country’s historical amnesia taking hold, and spent the last years of his life preaching the importance of memory and history, as with every individual or governmental action taken that countered the ideals of radical Reconstruction, Douglass felt farther and farther away from getting the justice he demanded for himself and for all Black Americans.

  2. On the 20th anniversary of Emancipation Frederick Douglas and young black leaders met to celebrate the achievements of Douglas’ life. For Douglas it was a chance to share with the young leaders the reasons why it is important to make sure that they understand and celebrate Emancipation day, which he believed was a turning point for the nation, in reality, for the black peoples. “Emancipation day, he believed, ought to be a national celebration in which all blacks—the low and the mighty—could claim a new and secure social identity.” (Blight 1158) For a very long time the blacks had no civil rights in the United States, they were used for labor and were mistreated by the whites. Once Emancipation took place, the freedmen finally felt as though they could finally speak in a nation in which they had been silenced for so long. To Douglas emancipation meant more than just freedom, it meant the chance to finally move forward as a race and prove why their skin color didn’t mean that they were less of a person, less valuable or less intelligent than a white citizen. However, a few months after the 20th anniversary of Emancipation, the Supreme Court decided to declare the civil rights act of 1875, which gave the right to anyone to use public transportation, go to public places such as theaters, and to serve on juries no matter the pigment of their skin, unconstitutional. This, Douglas believed was a huge step back because they were basically limiting the rights of the blacks. It all became about the skin color and segregation became a norm. As Blight stated when speaking of Douglas, “White racism, among individuals and in national policy, he remarked, seemed to increase in proportion to the “increasing distance from the time of the war.” Douglas believed that, as time passed people seemed to forget why the civil war was important to the history of the Union and was very upset at the decision of the Supreme Court. However, people believed that Douglas was stuck in the past and needed to move beyond it because the nation needed to progress, but for Douglas, the nation would not really progress until whites and blacks were treated equally.

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