Black History Month is a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions and achievements of Black Americans throughout history. Every February, the United States and Canada recognize the role of Black people in shaping society, culture, and politics.
It was in 1926 when an early version of Black History Month began, led by the efforts of historian Carter G. Woodson. Initially, the commemoration was held the second week of February to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. Later, in the 1970s, it was expanded to be a month-long, was renamed Black History Month, and was officially recognized by the U.S. Government.
Throughout our country’s history, Black Americans have had to fight for their rights and the recognition they deserve. To better understand the history and challenge, the life and work of Frederick Douglass tell the story of a dark time in our history and what changes can be made.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in the state of Maryland. Separated from his mother when she was sent to work on a different plantation, he had a difficult and lonely childhood. He became fascinated with seeing others read printed material and ultimately taught himself to read and write. When he was sent at the age of 15 by his owner to become a fieldhand, he taught the other enslaved people to read, stood up against violent and abusive foremen in the fields, and organized an unsuccessful escape.
Douglass’s owner became frustrated with his efforts and sent him back to Baltimore. There, Douglass met a free young Black woman named Anna, who helped him escape. Douglass dressed as a sailor, borrowed money from Anna to buy a train ticket, and made his way to New York City. There, he declared himself free.
The woman who had helped him escape, Anna, became his wife. Douglass and Anna moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they felt safer since Douglass was still seen as a fugitive. With his giftings as an orator and writer, Douglass began speaking on behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society about his experiences as a slave. In 1845, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In addition to talking about his life and escape, he also gave specific names, dates, and details about his life in slavery, putting to rest those naysayers who doubted his account.
Even with his growing popularity and reputation as an author and speaker, Douglass remained at risk of being recaptured and enslaved. Because of this, he spent a great deal of time in Europe on a speaking tour. Supporters offered to purchase his freedom and Douglass accepted. He returned home to the States, ready to take on U.S. prejudice and policy regarding slavery.
In 1861, Frederick Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln, advocating for emancipation for the country’s slave population and equal citizenship. After Lincoln’s second inaugural address, just weeks before his assassination in 1865, Frederick Douglass witnessed the inauguration. Later that day, at a reception held at the White House, Lincoln sought out Douglass and said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address…Douglass, there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.”
Following the Civil War, Douglass’s efforts and influence would ultimately contribute to the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, gave birthright citizenship, and secured voting rights. In 1872, Douglass was named as the first African American Marshal of the District of Columbia, and would later become President of Freedman’s Savings Bank. He also took on the cause of women’s rights, arguing that women should be allowed to vote and hold property. Frederick Douglass would become the most photographed American of the 19th century.
In his later life, Douglass continued to speak and write. Following the death of his first wife Anna in 1882 from a stroke, he married Helen Pitts in 1884. The marriage caused controversy in that Helen was two decades younger than Douglass. She was also white. The newlyweds spent a great deal of time in Europe and Africa, where their marriage was more easily accepted. They settled for a time in Haiti, where Douglass served as Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti.
In 1895, at the age of 77, Douglass was preparing to speak at a church close to his home in Cedar Hill, New York, when he suffered a heart attack and passed away. His legacy to the Black community, the Constitution, and his service to five U.S. Presidents continues to be influential today. It seems all the more appropriate that Black History Month was designed to be celebrated during the birth month of this incredible pioneer in Black rights.
As you look for opportunities this month to learn more about the Black experience in America, consider reading more on the life and times of Frederick Douglass. His story and the change he fought for serve as a powerful reminder of how far we have come as a country and how much further we have to go. During your devotional times throughout this month, consider the following scriptures.
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body-whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.1 Corinthians 12:13 NIV
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.James 2:8-9 NIV
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”Revelation 7:9-10 NIV