NEWTON, MA — This summer, communities across Massachusetts, including Newton, are part of a series of statewide events focusing on a speech written 170 years ago.
Mass Humanities supports public readings of Frederick Douglass’ influential speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” around the state. The readings and discussions that follow can take many formats, but each event features a group of people coming together to read parts of the speech.
According to Mass Humanities, the readings provide an opportunity to open discussion among community members about race, rights, and our responsibilities to the past and to each other.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and lived for many years in Massachusetts. He delivered the Fourth of July Address on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.
“The most famous orator of his day, Douglass’ powerful language, resolute denunciations of slavery and forceful examination of the Constitution challenge us to reflect on the stories we tell, the values they teach and whether our actions align with our aspirations,” Mass Humanities said in a press release. “To quote Douglass, ‘We deal with the past only insofar as we can make it useful for the future.'”
Since 2009, Mass Humanities has supported the Reading Frederick Douglass Together (RFDT) program. Last year, the organization responded to growing local demand for new conversations about history, race and democracy in local towns by funding 24 RFDT events, a nearly 3x increase from the program 2019.
“First delivered in 1852, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July’ by Frederick Douglass is timeless,” Brian Boyles, executive director of Mass Humanities, said in a statement. “This year, legislatures in 36 states introduced or passed bills that would ban honest speech about the history and impact of racism in America — measures that could ban schools and libraries from reading the speech of Douglass and the words and works of other African American authors, poets, playwrights and thought leaders. We need to hear and heed the words of Douglass now more than ever.”
This summer, a total of 23 Massachusetts organizations will host their own RFDT events with funding made possible by the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) A More Perfect Union.
Newton’s RFDT event will take place on Sunday, June 19 at 12:30 p.m. on the Walnut Street side of Newton North High School.