A Forthcoming Evening with Frederick Douglass
A unique & one-off evening of theater & music is heading to Edinburgh. The Mumble caught a wee blether with one of its creators, Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray…
Hello Hannah-Rose, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Hannah-Rose: It’s great to be able to talk with you! I’m Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray, a historian based at the University of Nottingham. My research covers transatlantic slavery, abolition, and the Black Atlantic.
What is your doctorate in?
Hannah-Rose: American and Canadian Studies, although I focused on African American transatlantic journeys to Britain during the nineteenth century. Hundreds of formerly enslaved African Americans travelled to the British Isles to lecture against U.S. slavery, educate the public about its horrors, write slave narratives, raise money to free enslaved family members, or settle permanently in Britain and Ireland. Their lectures reached nearly every corner of the British Isles – I’ve mapped some of their locations, and some even reached the rural counties of Cornwall and Wales, and even the Scottish Highlands! You can view the maps at my website, http://www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com but the extraordinary thing is that these lectures only represent a fraction of the total number. Throughout the c19th, millions of British people went to hear African Americans speak.
You are bringing a play to Edinburgh next month, can you tell us about it?
Hannah-Rose: Myself and my colleague Dr. Arun Sood (University of Plymouth) have organised a performance celebrating Frederick Douglass’ activism in Scotland. Born enslaved (1818-1895), Douglass was the most renowned African American during the nineteenth century, campaigning for abolition, female suffrage, social justice and equality on both sides of the Atlantic. He visited Britain three times, and his first trip in 1845-1847 led to dramatic changes in his self-fashioning and forever altered his future career. His lectures in Scotland were particularly popular after he challenged the Free Church of Scotland’s decision to accept slaveholder’s money for the establishment of their new church.
The performance focuses on a momentous speech Douglass and fellow abolitionist George Thompson gave in Edinburgh in 1846. Our script uses part of an Edinburgh speech verbatim, testimony that will not have been spoken aloud for over 170 years, and therefore offers a unique and exciting opportunity to highlight Douglass’ legacy in Scotland. At the height of his fame, Douglass inspired the creation of songs and poetry, and encouraged the local community to cry ‘Send Back the Money’ in the streets. Our play revives a central part of Edinburgh’s history, focusing on Douglass’ fiery rhetoric and his impact on the Scottish people: a ballad will by sung at the play’s end to highlight his enduring legacy from 1846 to 2018, and Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier (University of Edinburgh) will close the evening by discussing Douglass’ journey in further detail. The play will be held at the Jam House on Queen Street, the exact location where Douglass spoke in 1846.
The play also ties into the wonderful project that Professor Bernier has organised, ‘Our Bondage and Our Freedom’, There is an exhibition about Douglass and his family at the National Library of Scotland until February 2019, so please do visit that as well.
Has this grown from your research?
Hannah-Rose: I have organised performances like this before. I worked with the British Library in 2016 and organised a black history walking tour around London; at the end of the walk, I hired two actors to re-create an antislavery meeting. This was incredibly successful, and the feedback from it was so positive I created another performance the following year in Nottingham, this time focusing on formerly enslaved African American Josiah Henson and his interracial friendship with white abolitionist Samuel Morley. This play was about 45 minutes long, and was performed at BACKLIT Art Gallery in Nottingham city centre, in a beautiful c19th warehouse building once owned by Morley. Both men reflected on their activism, Henson in particular recounting some of the key moments in his life (including his visits to Britain). Because of Professor Bernier’s incredible project with Douglass, and the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, it seemed fitting to bring a play about Douglass to Edinburgh and raise awareness of Douglass’ extraordinary impact on the Scottish landscape. 2018 marks the bicentenary of Douglass’ birth, marking a pertinent time to reconsider the legacy of his Scottish speeches and to raise awareness of an American icon in Britain.
What has compelled you to tell the story of such an American legend theatrically to a Scottish audience?
Hannah-Rose: I think Douglass’ incredible oratory really brings the antislavery movement, and his effect on Scotland, to life. We wanted to try and recreate what it would have felt like to be in an abolitionist meeting. Antislavery meetings were theatrical anyway, with white and black abolitionists on a platform speaking to hundreds and often thousands of people. Occasionally, they were shouted down or interrupted: we include a real-life scene in the play, where Douglass was interrupted by someone in the audience. A man shouted out, “what is the price of a slave?” Douglass responded as quick as lightening, with “the price of a slave in Louisiana is regulated by the price of cotton in Manchester.” These fantastic exchanges happened quite frequently, and Victorian newspapers give us brilliant accounts of meetings: in one coverage, I read that people were so desperate to hear Douglass speak in a local church that they crammed the seats and aisles to breaking point, hundreds were turned away from lack of space, and a small crowd gathered outside underneath an open window to hear him. You can’t get more dramatic than that!
How do you think it will resonate with them?
Hannah-Rose: I think it’s always fascinating to learn about local history. The fact that Douglass, the most famous African American of the nineteenth century, not only visited Edinburgh but gave numerous speeches there and its environs is fascinating! Local people came to support Douglass, the antislavery cause, as well as challenging the Free Church for accepting slaveholder’s money. I think the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign is a really brilliant story, and presents an interesting moral question: should the Church have sent back the money? Why didn’t they in the end? Douglass’ electrifying oratory also proves he was a virtuoso of the antislavery movement. As a formerly enslaved person himself, he could paint the vivid horrors of slavery like no other. Just to give you an example, Douglass said in 1846, “under the drippings of the American sanctuary slavery has its existence. Whips, chains, gags, blood-hounds, thumb-screws, and all the bloody paraphernalia of slavery lie right under the drippings of the sanctuary, and instead of being corroded and rusted by its influence, they are kept in a state of preservation. Ministers of religion defend slavery from the Bible – ministers of religion own any number of slaves – bishops trade in human flesh – churches may be said to be literally built up in human skulls, and their very walls cemented with human blood – women are sold at the public block to support a minister, to support a church – human beings sold to buy sacramental services, and all, of course, with the sanction of the religion of the land.” It’s incredibly powerful.
I have read recently that the great emancipator, Abe Lincoln, was not as anti-slavery as is celebrated – what are your own thoughts on the matter?
Hannah-Rose: Lincoln gets a lot of press because of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is still regarded as a key turning point during the American Civil War. Lincoln defined himself as an antislavery man, but crucially, he was not above compromise during the Civil War. He wrote in 1862: “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” As ever, I’ll defer to what Frederick Douglass thought of Lincoln. The two men had a friendship of sorts, as Lincoln valued Douglass’ opinion about arming African Americans during the war. Understandably, Douglass was incensed that black soldiers did not receive the same wages and rations as their fellow white soldiers, and criticised Lincoln for this, declaring he would recruit no more black soldiers for the Union until this had been corrected. Lincoln could afford to compromise about this issue and about slavery; Douglass as a formerly enslaved person, could not. While Douglass looked upon his friendship with Lincoln with great fondness for the rest of his life, he also accepted Lincoln’s faults. In 1876, Douglass was asked to speak at a memorial dedication to Lincoln, and in his speech, recognised that Lincoln was neither perfect nor an abolitionist hero: “it must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”
How did you get involved with Arun Sood?
Hannah-Rose: A friend introduced us via email, and we had some wonderful conversations about Frederick Douglass – both of us have written about Douglass’ experience in Britain. I mentioned the previous work I have done in terms of performances, and we both thought it would be a wonderful idea to create a play together.
What do you hope an audience member will take away from watching the play?
Hannah-Rose: Hopefully many things! The play is designed to raise awareness of Frederick Douglass, and his extraordinary impact on Edinburgh and other neighbouring towns. The Scottish people really embraced him and his mission. Our play resurrects Douglass’ speeches from the 1840s, and audiences will be blown away by his powerful oratory, his ability to hammer home the nature of white supremacy and the violence of slavery, and his skill at exposing the hypocrisy of an American nation (and a ‘Free’ Scottish church) who would accept money from Southern slaveholders. I also hope that audiences will come away thinking about the legacy of slavery on transatlantic society, that we are still living with its consequences, and Douglass as a figure is now more important than ever.
What will you be doing with the project following your performance in Edinburgh?
Hannah-Rose: Hopefully we will be able to get some follow-on funding, and take the play on tour. Douglass spoke in numerous locations including Nottingham, Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle, Birmingham, London, Exeter, Leeds…it would be great to choose one of these locations, and adapt the script slightly to include extracts of Douglass’ speech from that location. I’ve spent years finding and transcribing Douglass’ speeches from the Victorian press, so we have a lot of material to work with. It just depends on funding!
The Jam House, Edinburgh
November 9th (19.30)