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Lincoln and Douglass

February 11, 1917 — Centenary Celebration of the Birthday of Frederick Douglass, Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church, Harrisburg PA


FREDERICK DOUGLASS once said: Any man may say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln. If that were true in the past century, in the early seventies, how much more is it true today, when over a century has passed since the hero of America opened his eyes in a log cabin of Kentucky.

It is eminently fitting and proper that we, as Americans, celebrate the birth of the man who, by a single stroke of his pen — albeit, a reluctant stroke — gave the Negro the right to stand with his face to the sun and proclaim to the world, “I am a man!” It is our right and our duty to commemorate his birth, to mourn his death, to revere the twelfth of February as a holiday, to come together to lay laurel wreaths on his tomb. But we Americans of the darker skin have another day as dear to us as the twelfth of February, less well known, perhaps, but which we should acclaim with shouts of joy, even as we acclaim the day which has grown familiar by long usage. That day is the birthday of Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln and Douglass; Douglass and Lincoln! Names ever linked in history and in the hearts of a grateful race as the two great emancipators, the two men above all other Americans, fearless, true, brave, strong, the western ideal of manhood. Is it not fitting that their natal days should come within a few hours of each other. Is it not right that when the Negro child lifts its eyes to the American flag on Lincoln’s day e should, at the same time, think of the man whose thunderous voice never ceased in its denunciation of wrong, its acclamation of right, its spurring the immortal Lincoln to be true to his highest ideals; its sorrowful wail when he seemed to fail the nation? Verily, on this day of days we of the darker hued skin have a richer heritage than our white brothers — ours the proud possession of two heroes, theirs of but one. . . . 

Every school boy in the nation knows Abraham Lincoln — his gaunt figure, his seamed and pain lined face, with its sweetness and patience, are familiar to their eyes. His life, with its romance of poverty and toil, its tragic sorrow and tragic end, are as close to the heart of the nation as the stories of the Bible and the Christ-child. The utterances of Lincoln, the anecdotes of his life, the whimsical stories of his early days and his quaint humor furnish a never ending theme of interest to the American school boy. His sublime speeches; the delicate pathos of his first inaugural address; the splendid, stern, yet tender beauty of the second inaugural address are recited from thousands of school platforms annual, while the Gettysburg speech is as well known in America as the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, and I deem it no sacrilege to say that in point of literary beauty it stands with them. It is graven in bronze in the national cemeteries, on school walls, in the halls of colleges and universities. It is recited semi-annually by the majority of the school boys in the country, and it is right that it should be, for is not Lincoln the nation’s idol, the American ideal?

Yet how many Negro youths in the land know as much of the ideal of Negro manhood, Frederick Douglass? If Lincoln is the American idol, so is Douglass the Negro’s idol. If Lincoln’s was a romance of life, with its toilsome youth culminating in a splendid manhood, attaining the highest gift which the nation could be stow, how much more is Douglass’ life a romance? The slave, beaten, starved, stripped, fleeing from slavery at the most deadly peril, to become in his later manhood the guest of nobles and kings, the cynosure of the nation’s eyes, the friend of this same Lincoln, the great man of the century? If Lincoln’s utterances are inspiring, calling in clarion notes for right and justice and truth, so much more are Douglass’ inspiring to us, calling for manhood and strength and power.

For he was no soft-tongued apologist,
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly, uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark-hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil’s due.

The Negro youth of the land recites the Gettysburg speech, and it is right that he should do so; but does he know Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The Negro youth of the land admires Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, but does he know Douglass’ splendid tribute to the man who wrote the Second Inaugural address, when the freedmen of this country erected the Lincoln monument at Washington? The Negro youth rolls over his tongue the witty epigrams of the mighty Lincoln, but has he been made familiar with some of the pithy aphorisms of his own Douglass?

But, I hear you say, Lincoln’s speeches were for all time: Douglass’ for the period in which slavery existed; Lincoln addressed an entire nation: Douglass only a limited portion. Not so. What Douglass said was true today, as it was in his own day. If America were guilty in holding slaves, she is no less guilty in her attitude towards the men whose fathers were slaves. If the conscience of the nation needed quickening in 1860, how much more so does it need quickening in this year?

Lincoln reached the zenith of his fame only to be struck down in cold blood by the ruthless hand of an assassin. Douglass lived to an honored age, to die in the fulness of love and fame and admiration. It was the sad duty of Douglass to pay the tribute of a grateful and sorrowing race to the name and fame of the Emancipator. While the nation mourned, aghast, at the heinousness of the crime, while North and South alike agreed in the execrations which were hurled at the assassin, there was the humble, child-like Negro race, whose shackles he had struck off, bowed in dumb misery at the spectacle of his one and only true white friend, cold in death. It seemed a wise dispensation of Providence that one of that race could come forward fearlessly and lay the tributes of his people on the prostrate form.

Hurt was the nation with a mighty wound,
And all her ways were filled with clam’rous sound;
Wailed loud the South with unremitting grief,
And wept the North that could not find relief

Lincoln and Douglass; Douglass and Lincoln! We honor them both today, but more than the mere men, we honor their impress on our own people. We glean from their lives lessons of worth, but more than from their lives we learn from their characters what we need to make our own strong, and of their characters the two lessons which we most need we may take to heart — moral honesty and moral courage.

Abraham Lincoln does not need the tribute we give him today; the world is paying him tributes greater than ours, more glorious and resounding. But the sweeter praise which we pay him is that of a race, profiting by the lesson of a life. Fame has written Lincoln’s name with the greatest men of the world with the statesmen, with the wisest of monarchs, with the prince of republicans — and placed his laurel wreath higher than the rest. But it remains for the descendants of slaves to give him what no man in history has ever had — the divine breath of gratitude, the determination to make the world see, centuries hence, that he was not mistaken in his greatest deed, his life work, his martyrdom.

But Frederick Douglass, whom we honor equally, has not yet had the full meed of his praise, and we celebrate the passing of his natal day with a finer appreciation of what he has done for us, and of what his life will mean, not only to the men who were his contemporaries, nor yet to us of a later generation, but to the race of the future; to the children yet unborn. History has not yet given him his rightful place on its pages, but the history of. tomorrow will place him where he should be — with the courageous, the wise, the far-seeing. It remains for us, his own people, to pour out at his altar the incense he deserves, the praise he merits; to let his life be a beacon to light us to that higher, truer patriotism — the fearlessness of real manhood.

My friends, we do well to gather here today to honor the memory of Abraham Lincoln; we do better to remember his great contemporary, Frederick Douglass. The twelfth of February is to us, as Americans, a sacred occasion — the fourteenth of February is to us, as Negroes, a no less holy day. When the race which shares with us this great country lays its laurel wreaths on the tomb of Lincoln, we, of the dark-hued skin and saddened eyes, must lay our palms on the grave of Frederick Douglass. Both heroes are ours to remember, to extol, to revere, to emulate.

Lincoln and Douglass; Douglass and Lincoln! May their names ever be welded into one memory in the hearts of every Negro in the land!



Source: The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer: Containing the Best Prose and Poetic Selections by and About the Negro Race, With Programs Arranged for Special Entertainments, ed. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (Naperville, IL: J.L. Nichols & Co.) 1920, pp. 197-203.