Was Frederick Douglass a Refugee?

Some of you may remember Donald Trump’s reference to Frederick Douglass during last week’s remarks about Black History Month.

In case you missed it:

These comments from Trump and later his press secretary Sean Spicer have prompted many historians to wonder if they realize that Douglass passed away in 1895.

I am not sure if Trump was correct when he said that Douglass is “being recognized more and more.”  Historians can debate that point.  But I am reasonably certain that since he referenced Douglass the reputation of this former-slave and abolitionist has skyrocketed.

On the day Trump made his statement about Douglass I started the #douglassfortrump hashtag and began to tweet Douglass quotes for the purpose of educating the POTUS about the great abolitionist’s ideas.

David Blight, the author of a forthcoming biography of Douglass, decided to use the recent Douglass craze to make a statement about Trump’s executive order on immigration.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

Frederick Douglass, author, orator, editor, and most important African American leader of the 19th century, was a dangerous illegal immigrant. Well, in 1838 he escaped a thoroughly legal system of enslavement to the tenuous condition of fugitive resident of a northern state that had outlawed slavery, but could only protect his “freedom” outside of the law.  

Douglass’s life and work serve as a striking symbol of one of the first major refugee crises in our history. From the 1830s through the 1850s, the many thousands of runaway slaves, like Douglass, who escaped into the North, into Canada, or Mexico put enormous pressure on those places’ political systems. The presence and contested status of fugitive slaves polarized voters in elections; they were the primary subject of major legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as well as Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. They were at the heart of a politics of fear in the 1850s that led to disunion. Among the many legacies of Douglass’s life and writings alive today, one of the most potent is his role as an illegal migrant and very public abolitionist orator and journalist posing as a free black citizen in slaveholding America.  

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Was Frederick Douglass a Refugee?

  1. Professor Fea – thanks for the “heads-up” on David Blight’s brilliant article.
    Here’s one of my favorite Frederick Douglass quotes that is particularly apt during the reign of Trump:
    “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.”

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