ROCHESTER — On the same weekend in which Frederick Douglass 168 years ago gave his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” a statue honoring the famed abolitionist leader was vandalized in the city where he lived.
The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported that the statue of Douglass was taken on Sunday from Maplewood Park, a site along the Underground Railroad where Douglass and Harriet Tubman helped shuttle slaves to freedom.
Located in Maplewood Park, the statue “had been placed over the fence to the gorge and was leaning against the fence” on the river side, according to a statement from Rochester police. The statue was left about 50 feet from its pedestal.
The base and lower part of the statue were damaged, as was a finger on the statue’s left hand. The statue has been taken from the park for repairs, according to Lt. Jeffrey LaFave II.
There were no signs of graffiti at the statue or anywhere in the park, police said.
Across the United States, Douglass’ July 5, 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” has been shared widely on social media and elsewhere as a reminder of the country’s legacy of slavery and racism.
Douglass, a former slave, delivered the speech to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society at Corinthian Hall in downtown Rochester. He told the listeners there and beyond that the country could not lay claim to the purest of ideals while willingly enslaving and oppressing its Black citizens.
Douglas credited the signers of the Declaration of Independence as “brave” and “great” men but called out the hypocrisy of celebrating the Fourth of July as a day of freedom while slaves were not free.
Independence Day to a slave, Douglass said, is “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, who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1838 and settled in Rochester for about 30 years, said in the speech that the celebration of liberty and citizenship were offensive to the enslaved population.
”Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
The speech followed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act denied slaves freedom if they escaped to a free state and required them to be returned to their masters. It also banned runaway slaves from testifying on their own behalf and from having a trial by jury. Douglass’ address is considered one of the most important antislavery speeches prior to the Civil War.
New York emancipated slaves on July 4, 1827, 25 years before Douglass’ speech. The African American community chose to celebrate emancipation on July 5 instead of the national holiday, which is why Douglass chose to mark his speech on that day.
President Trump blamed leftists Monday for the weekend destruction of the statue, even though police have said they have not identified a motive.
Trump asserted that so-called “anarchists” carried out the vandalism of the historic statue without offering any evidence.
“These anarchists have no bounds!” Trump tweeted.
Police have not identified any suspect or a motive. Some activists have also targeted colonial leaders like Christopher Columbus, the Founding Fathers and other slaveowners. But they have not taken aim at any Black leaders.
Carvin Eison, a leader of the project that built the Douglass statue a few years ago, suggested that vandalism was likely carried out by white nationalists aligned with Trump, although he did not offer any evidence of that.
“Is this some type of retaliation because of the national fever over confederate monuments right now? Very disappointing, it’s beyond disappointing,” Eison told WROC.
Eison told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle another statue will take its place because the damage is too significant.