By Maureen Grey
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of those historic figures who was always on the list of people to study for Negro History Week. Every American Black child knows or is supposed to know by second grade, especially if one attends a majority Black* student or faculty populated school. Douglass seemed to be current looking – his hair was natural and long – which was in vogue. Some of his suits looked like the one in Ebony magazine. His features were fiercely chiseled – which intimidated me as a child, but they expressed his passion to fight the establishment to gain equality – something that was a part of the 1960’s and 1970’s America my family had to learn about when we came to America. So much was studied about him during those school days, but no one mentioned that he was a Republican – just like our President, Richard M. Nixon. Today, five Black Republicans have taken new seats in Congress. This is just a sign of a rebounding Republican Party.
*Although African-American is more politically correct, I prefer to use Black as my racial nomenclature. That was the term of my upbringing and most of my adulthood; and serves as a common descriptor for my two African diasporic cultures.
When I first came to this country from Jamaica W.I, Douglass’ picture would often be placed next to Lincoln’s on the school bulletin boards highlighting Negro History Week – that is what the commemoration of Black historical figures was called. I still recall the bulletin board outside my first-grade classroom at St. Joseph’s Parish Day School in Queens Village, NY (Demolished, 2022). I recognized Martin Luther King, Jr., because he had just been killed, but the others I did not recognize. Those were all the American heroes. I was hoping to see the great Jamaican hero, Marcus Garvey, but he was not there. In second grade, we took days to cut silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington from black construction paper so as to commemorate their February birthdays. We placed the silhouettes around the room and on the classroom bulletin board. Sometimes, we cut silhouettes for Frederick Douglass, but those were put on the Negro History Week bulletin board in the hallway. Over the years, we all learned that he was a runaway slave who became an eloquent orator for the emancipation of slaves despite not having a formal education. After writing several books such as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he was able to purchase his freedom from the proceeds. Ever promoting abolition of slavery, Douglass encouraged several northern abolitionist groups to pressure Congress to end slavery. Prior to and during the Civil War, Douglass persuaded Lincoln to allow the enlistment of Blacks to fight in the Civil War. We also learned that Douglass was President Lincoln’s friend. But that was mostly all that was emphasized. No one mentioned that he was a New York Republican.