Frederick Douglass was speaking in Pendleton, Ind., on a sunny Saturday in 1843. On America’s vast prairie, a revolutionary was shouting against the evils of slavery.
“It was the volcanic outbreak of human nature,” a reporter wrote after hearing Douglass. “It was the storm of insurrection.”
During the talk, several dozen men armed with stones and clubs encircled the crowd of 130. These enraged men, like most Americans of 1843, supported slavery. It was — and this forever will remain astonishing — the law of the land.
Suddenly, vile mob attacked peaceful crowd. A swing from a club fractured Douglass’ right hand. A second swing busted open his forehead, knocked him to the ground and removed several teeth. A third swing, likely fatal, was on the way before anti-slavery crusader William White rescued Douglass.
A monument to this vicious attack was erected in Pendleton in 2013. Here’s my favorite sentence from the monument’s long inscription:
“Douglass spoke the next day at nearby Friends (Quaker) meetinghouse without incident.”
Think about it: Not even a brush with death could silence Douglass, who belongs on any list of great Americans. We tend to consider his courage during Black History Month. We should consider his courage every month.
It is Jason Kohl’s challenge and honor to teach the Douglass story to juniors and seniors at Palmer High School. Tuesday, Kohl sits at a downtown lunch table and talks about bringing a man born 201 years ago this month to life for teens born in the 21st century. Kohl is Colorado Springs, through and through. He’s a 1986 Doherty High alum who later graduated from UCCS and Colorado College.
In 1843, Douglass walked on perilous ground. Most white Americans fiercely supported or, at best, nonchalantly shrugged at the idea of one human owning another human. Evil was socially acceptable, and speaking against evil was life endangering.
“These are folks who were willing to stand, willing to stand for something that is right, even though the majority believed that they were in the wrong,” Kohl says of the anti-slavery crusaders.
After telling the Douglass story to Palmer students, Kohl follows with a question. He asks the question in 2019, but it’s the same question that inspired Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr.
“Are you willing today to stand for what is right?” Kohl asks.
“Are you willing to stand if you’re the only one standing? Are you willing to stand when everybody else wants to knock you down for what you believe?
“That is Frederick Douglass.”
The story of Frederick Douglass has the rhythm and weight of an Old Testament tale. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, he died 65 miles away in his stately white home on a hill in Washington D.C., where he could sit on his front porch and gaze at the U.S. Capitol. He ranked among America’s best-selling writers in the 19th century. Impoverished slave transformed to wealthy celebrity.
But trouble always blended with triumph.
He had plentiful reason to hate his homeland. He was beaten as a child by slavemasters. He was beaten by slavery supporters in Indiana. He was a lonely, imperiled voice against slavery in the 1840s and 1850s. He sent his sons to battle in the Civil War. After the war, Douglass believed the truth would set his countrymen free, and the morally blind would be blessed with sight. Instead, he saw a violent cloud fall over the Deep South. Segregation became the American norm. Emancipation did not result in equality.
Still, he refused to indulge in cynicism. He soared, always, above reality, believing, fiercely and utterly, in America’s unmatched promises.
“Read then the preamble of the Constitution,” he said in an 1857 speech. “Note how it starts. ‘We the people of the United States’ … not we the white people, but ‘we the people.’ ”
In one of his final speeches, Douglass stood on an August day before a big Chicago crowd. A few words into his prepared speech, a crowd of whites in the audience loudly mocked him, and for a moment the strength of a 74-year-old American giant was shaken.
But only for a moment.
Douglass tossed his speech to the ground and removed his glasses. Standing in the middle of his still scattering speech, Douglass shouted down the shouters. In his youth, he had been described as “majestic in his wrath.” Age failed to conquer that majesty. His hour-long speech ended with uproarious applause.
He asked, “Whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution?”
A soul-shaking question in 1893.
A soul-shaking question that Kohl still asks today.