“All I ask is, give him (the Negro) a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone . … If you see him going into a workshop, just let him alone — your interference is doing him a positive injury.” Thus spoke Frederick Douglass 140 years ago, at the end of the Civil War.
Douglass, the most renowned black American spokesman of his day, argued for liberty — and liberty alone — for freed blacks. Booker T. Washington, who succeeded him as a popular leader, did the same. Their plea is worth remembering this February, during Black History Month.
Some whites and blacks after the Civil War wanted freed slaves to have special land grants or extensive federal aid, and they made arguments similar to those who now would give racial preferences in hiring to black Americans. Historically, however, many black leaders argued against special privileges and requested for blacks only “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” specified in the Declaration of Independence.
Douglass, in his 1865 speech, stressed this desire for liberty alone. A former slave himself, Douglass shunned special privileges. “Everybody has asked the question, … ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!”
Douglass used the metaphor of an apple tree to drive his point home. “If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, … let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.”
Douglass knew much about rising and falling on his own merits. A fugitive slave, he fled northward and joined the antislavery movement in Massachusetts in 1841. He wrote an autobiography and edited the North Star, a newspaper promoting freedom for all blacks. Douglass was tall, with a mass of hair, penetrating eyes and a firm chin. Stubborn and principled, he was a captivating orator and spoke across the United States before and after the Civil War.
Douglass was especially comfortable speaking before audiences committed to freedom of opportunity for blacks. Not surprisingly, then, he came to Michigan in the middle of the Civil War to speak at Hillsdale College, which had been founded in 1844 as only the second integrated college in the nation. At the time, the college was somewhat depleted; most of the male students had enlisted in the Union Army to secure the freedom that Douglass had been promoting for over twenty years.
When Douglass died in 1895, Booker T. Washington became the most prominent spokesman for black Americans. Founder and president of the famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington shared Douglass’s belief that equal opportunity, not special privileges, was the road to success for blacks. Two years after Douglass’s death, Washington also traveled to Hillsdale College, and he spoke to the students about promoting in the black community “efficiency and ability, especially in practical living.”
He elaborated on this idea in his 1901 book “Up From Slavery.” “I believe,” Washington insisted, “that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner; learns to do a thing so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done; learns to make its services of indispensable value.”
What about discrimination — when, say, a white employer uses his freedom to refuse to hire a black or give him a chance? Then you use your freedom to persist, Washington urged. “No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified.”
We cannot know what views Douglass and Washington might hold if they were alive today. But it’s worth remembering that the injustice and racial discrimination they faced in their era were at least as unforgiving as any persecution experienced in America in recent decades. Their insight and courage in fighting for the advancement of black Americans deserves to be remembered.
Dr. Burton W. Folsom Jr. is professor of history at Hillsdale College and senior fellow in economic education for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.