Monday, February 19, 2018
Frederick Douglass: A Multi-Racial Trailblazer
by Professor Tanya Hernandez, Fordham Law School
Last year President Trump made statements that left the impression he believed that abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive. In some respects, he still is. This month marks the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth, and his racial justice work continues to be relevant today. In fact, after President Trump was informed that Douglass died in 1895, the president signed into law the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Act to organize events to honor the bicentennial anniversary of Douglass’s birth.
While slave records mark Douglass’ birth month as February — he was born in a plantation on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County — his status as a slave meant he had no information about the exact day he was born. As an adult he chose Feb. 14th for himself as a birth date. He was also never told who his father was, but circumstances lead him to conclude that it was his white slave owner.
Despite his mixed-race heritage and likely connection to his owner, Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age and exposed to physical abuse from his owners.
After escaping to freedom, Douglass established himself as a luminary of the abolitionist movement with his eloquent speeches regarding the savagery of slavery and its blight on our Constitution. His reputation as a compelling orator and writer garnered him a pivotal role in both lobbying for the inclusion of much needed black Union soldiers in the Civil War and then recruiting them once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. After the Civil War, Douglass continued to write and speak out on matters of racial justice. His contributions to the nation were officially recognized with various government appointments.
Yet when Douglass married a white woman (fellow abolitionist and feminist Helen Pitts) after his first wife died, his interracial marriage created great controversy. It was immaterial that Douglass had white ancestry himself. Douglass’s mixed-race status did not alter his experience of racial discrimination. This is still true for mixed-race persons today.
In the 200 years since Douglass’ birth, we have has seen the growth of interracial marriages and mixed-race “multiracial” and “biracial” identity. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that the self-identified multiracial population will triple by 2060.
-- This is an excerpt of an oped published in the Baltimore Sun by Professor Tanya Hernandez. To read the full article, click here.