Panelists reflected on the common threads between Frederick Douglass’ quest for freedom in the 19th century and the global fight for racial equality in modern times during a virtual event commemorating the 175th anniversary of the activist’s oration tour of Ireland.
Dennis Brownlee, founder and president of the African American Irish Diaspora Network, began the Sept. 29 discussion by introducing the historical framework of Douglass’ travel to Ireland in 1845 and how his 19th-century fight for freedom has parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
The programming, titled “‘Agitate!’—Frederick Douglass and Ireland,” was hosted by the Global Irish Studies initiative at Georgetown and moderated by professor Miriam Nyhan Grey, associate director of Glucksman Ireland House at New York University. Three principal panelists — Howard University professor Edna Greene Medford, Quinnipiac University professor Christine Kinealy and Georgetown University history professor Maurice Jackson — led a conversation highlighting historical and contemporary justice in Ireland and the United States.
Kinealy began the conversation by recounting the context of Douglass’ visit to Ireland. Following the publication of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” and his ensuing fame, Douglass fled to Ireland at the end of 1845 out of fear of capture under the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglass was enthralled and inspired by the freedom, liberation and equality that greeted him in Dublin and decided to extend his stay and study in Ireland, according to Kinealy.
“Within two weeks of being in Ireland, he writes back to Garrison saying that, not only does he for the first time in his life feel safe, but for the first time in his life he feels equal,” Kinealy said. “So being in Ireland becomes a very liberating, transformative experience for the 27-year-old Frederick.”
While the treatment of Irish immigrants diverged greatly from the Black experience in American history, Douglass understood the two communities endured persecution, according to Jackson. Jackson told the gruesome story of when Douglass came across a man covered in a sheet in a ditch with half his face bitten off.
“He found that the man was Irish and he spoke about that. And the white person told him no, you don’t speak about that, you speak about the plantation. You speak about facts, we will give you the philosophy,” Jackson said. “And Douglass says, ‘No, I must fight freedom everywhere.’ And this became a concept that we in America took back, that he saw the struggles of the Irishmen.”
Kinealy said empathy was a cornerstone of Douglass’ legacy because he contested that the fight for equality could be found anywhere and everywhere.
“Oppression was not bound by border or nationality or ethnicity or color or gender,” Kinealy said. “As Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a struggle.’ If we just sit back and let it happen, it will happen. We have to be active agents.”
Medford explained that Douglass’ visit to Ireland demonstrated his ability to appeal to people’s shared humanity, making him the champion of human rights of his time.
“Every human being has a responsibility to ensure that every other human being is treated with justice and equality and humanity,” Medford said. “Douglass’s relationship with Irish Americans showed that he understood that we were all in the same place as human beings and that we had to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to live as full a life as possible.”
Douglass was one of the first to internationalize the plight of Black people and cultivate an ideal of global citizenship that echoes the universal Black Lives Matter movement today, according to Jackson.
“In Minneapolis, and in many cases, everywhere, what you see now is some white kids taking responsibility, taking some initiative. They’ve joined together to fight for Blacks,” Jackson said. “They’re fighting for something that Douglass fought for all his life.”
The Embassy of Ireland, joined by the Council of International Educational Exchange, announced a monetary sponsorship for the fourth cohort of Frederick Douglass Global Fellows for the 2021 year during the event. Ten students of color across the United States will be chosen to attend a study abroad program in Ireland to continue the legacy of agitation for societal change within their own communities.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister of foreign affairs, reflected on the compassion of Douglass and concluded by calling for Ireland to recultivate the tolerance that welcomed Douglass in the first place.
“These past few months have given us pause to reflect on whether all who moved to Ireland today are as welcome as Frederick Douglass was honored 175 years ago,” Coveney said. “We’ve been challenged to acknowledge and address inequalities within the narrow bounds of our own island. And we must continue to strive for equality and liberty, both at home and abroad, in these pursuits.”