SALISBURY—Tuesday, Feb. 24, marks the 135th anniversary of Frederick Douglass speaking in the Wicomico County Courthouse.
On that evening in 1880, two years after the construction of the county’s first courthouse, one of the most famous American historical figures entered the building’s courtroom and spoke to a mixed audience segregated by an aisle.
Frederick Douglass, then the Marshall of the District of Columbia, was escorted to the courthouse from the home of his host, Solomon Houston, by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. The entourage likely escorted him westerly along Church Street, turning south onto Division Street to the courthouse.
The lecture benefited the restoration efforts of the John Wesley Church, then a one-story structure (now the Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center). The funds contributed to the costs of expanding the building to the two stories seen today.
In the February 21 edition of the Salisbury Advertiser announcing Douglass’ lecture, there was the news of the death of Douglass’ former owner, Captain Thomas Auld of St. Michaels of Talbot County.
I wonder if that circumstance occupied Douglass’ thoughts as he journeyed to Salisbury, or if it added significance or emphasis to his speech, “Self-Made Men.” He had prepared this lecture in 1872, one of several topics he used for his talks.
The Salisbury Advertiser noted that Douglass “talked slow and distinct, and with a clear voice, fine articulation, evidencing that the ground over which he was traveling was a well-beaten path” of many world-wide lectures.
From the printed version of his speech, Douglass’ eloquence shines.
“I believe in individuality, but individuals are, to the mass, like waves to the ocean. The highest order of genius is as dependent as is the lowest. It, like the loftiest waves of the sea, derives its power and greatness from the grandeur and vastness of the ocean of which it forms a part. We differ as the waves, but are one as the sea.”
The speech, lasting nearly two hours, was carefully crafted in ways that were thought-provoking and confrontational, but in a smart, non-threatening oratory; and referred to all people.
In some cases he spoke obliquely to the peculiar institution of slavery. In others he addressed it directly, referring to the “barbarism” of human bondage.
The white reporter, while complimentary of Douglass’ lecture, took lengthy exception to parts of it, stating, “that the four millions of slaves in the United States at the date of the emancipation proclamation were the most intelligent, most happy, most healthy and the best looking four millions of negroes under the canopy of heaven.”
But the reporter conceded that Douglass “is a fine orator no candid man will deny.”
The text of the speech can be read online (monadnock.net/douglass/self-made-men.html), and a narration of it can be heard on Youtube (youtube.com/watch?v=BfgzUE3Okww). Other than the newspaper’s review, it is not known how his lecture might have differed from the prepared speech.
(There is also a short piece by Ms. Duyer on the speech at the Delmarva African American History site, including reproductions of the original newspaper notice and review of the speech. Access it by entering http://tinyurl.com/nz8aclq ).
One of the most influential figures in American history graced the halls of our courthouse, yet few know this. Douglass filled the courtroom with his voice to an audience which included some who had once been enslaved. And he gave his audience something to think about with his oratory and his commanding presence. Think of that the next time you lay eyes on the Salisbury courthouse.
Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury and is in the process of writing a book about the community’s history. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org