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Reformer Frederick Douglass Spoke in New Hampshire

Frederick_Douglass_00HISTORY MATTERS

In the final version of his autobiography, published not long before his death in 1895, Frederick Douglass recalled an early visit to New Hampshire. Now America’s best known abolitionist, Douglass was just 25 years old during his first encounter with citizens of the Granite State. Twenty-one of those years had been spent as a slave. (Continued below)


He bore on his back the marks of the lash, and he likely revealed this fact to his white audience in Pittsfield, NH. He knew white audiences did not want to hear the horrific details of life as a slave, but he told them all the same.

“I’m afraid you do not understand the awful character of these lashes,” Douglass said politely. He explained how an enslaved man could be stripped naked, tied to a tree or post and – for the smallest of infractions -- lashed with a knotted whip almost to the bone. He recited chapter and verse from American laws that allowed slaves to be lashed for riding a horse without permission, for selling goods without permission, for gathering in groups of more than seven without permission, and for walking off the main roads. Slaves, by law, could have an ear removed or be branded with the initials of the “man-stealer” who owned them. Over 3,000,000 slaves in that era were forbidden even to marry.

As he spoke to the Pittsfield audience gathered at the local church in 1842, Douglass himself was a fugitive and technically still enslaved. He had escaped his Maryland “owner” to marry a free black woman named Anne Murray.

He often told of an enslaved couple who, with their children, were sold to separate farms. When the bereaved father begged to say farewell to his family, permission was denied. When the man, propelled by raw emotion, reached out to embrace his loved ones, he was beaten and killed in their presence. Another black man, Douglass related, struck his owner in self defense and was killed, decapitated, and his head displayed as a warning to others. A black woman who taught her child to read was hanged. There were 71 crimes for which a black could be executed, Douglass told his New Hampshire audience, yet only three capital crimes for whites. This was the law of the nation where he lived.

Shunned and lonely

Educated in “the school of slavery,” Frederick Douglass carried these painful lessons to the little New Hampshire town. He had been sent by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to teach the truth about America’s “peculiar institution.”

The Hille family, his New Hampshire sponsors in 1842, greeted him coolly, Douglass reported. Mr. Hille did not even show up to dine with his house guest. The next morning, when Mr. Hilles drove his wife to church, they did not offer the empty seat in their carriage to Douglass, but drove off without him. Douglass walked the two miles to the church alone, and then lectured to those assembled. Mr. Hille was again unable to attend.

During a morning intermission in the service, no one in the congregation spoke to Douglass. At lunch, again, no one spoke to him or offered him a meal. When he found a small hotel nearby, the invited lecturer was told “they did not entertain niggers there.”  Cold, hungry, and despondent, Douglass later wrote, he sat in a small cemetery. Only the New Hampshire dead, Douglass noted, welcomed him here.


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