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What Does the Fourth of July Mean to an Enslaved Person?

Many years ago, a very brave man named Frederick Douglass, who was an enslaved person before becoming a champion for freedom, talked about what the Fourth of July, or America’s Independence Day, means to those who were enslaved. He gave a speech that changed many white people’s thinking.

One thing he said was, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Douglass was explaining that while many white people celebrated the Fourth of July with joy and excitement because it was the day America became free from British rule, for enslaved Black people, it was not a day of celebration. It was a day that reminded them they weren’t free, even though America was.

He also said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Douglass was sharing that the Fourth of July was a day of sadness for enslaved people because it highlighted the cruel fact that they were not free.

His speech helped many people understand the unfairness of celebrating freedom while Black people were still enslaved. It encouraged the fight for freedom and equality for all people.

Keywords to Know Learn Understand

Glossary of Keywords

  1. Enslaved Person: This term is used instead of “slave” to emphasize that people who were subjected to slavery are humans first. They were forced into the condition of slavery, but that condition does not define them.

  2. Independence Day: This is another name for the Fourth of July. It is a holiday in the United States that celebrates the country’s independence from British rule.

  3. Injustice: This means something unfair or wrong.

  4. Cruelty: This means being very mean or causing pain on purpose.

  5. Racism: This is when someone treats others unfairly or unkindly just because they have a different skin color, come from a different country, or have different traditions.

  6. Race: This is a way of grouping people based on things like skin color, eye shape, or where their families come from. It’s important to remember that no race is better or worse than another.

  7. Fugitive Slave: This is a term that was used to describe enslaved people who escaped and were running away from slavery. “Fugitive” means someone who is running away, and in this case, they were running away from being treated unfairly.

  8. Mourning: This is a word that describes feeling very sad about something. Usually, people mourn when someone they love passes away. In this context, it means feeling sad because of the unfairness of slavery.

Let's Talk About It Discussion Questions

  1. Why did Frederick Douglass say the Fourth of July was a day of mourning for enslaved people?
  2. What do you think Douglass wanted people to understand about slavery and the Fourth of July?
  3. How does it make you feel knowing that some people were not free even when America was celebrating its freedom?



Extended Reading

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