There has been much discussion about racism in the past year. Are we racists? Is America racist? Is a particular politician racist? Up to this time, however, there has been a missing ingredient in most, not all, but in most the interactions on this important subject.
As a means of introducing this missing ingredient, let me tell the story of a great American who was an abolitionist and a reformer – Fredrick Douglas.
Fredrick Douglas was born in Maryland in 1818. He was born enslaved on a farm in Talbot County. He was owned by Captain Aaron Anthony. Douglas was separated from his mother when he was very young and spent many years with his grandmother, who was responsible for the young slave children. When he was about eight years old, he went to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld to help with the care of their son.
Sophia began to teach Douglas how to read, but Hugh quickly put a stop to that. Later, Douglas was owned by captain Thomas Auld, and as a teenager, he experienced harsh living conditions. Auld was a cruel man. Still later, he was leased to a local farmer, Edward Covey, who was known as a “slave breaker.” Covey’s abuse led to a confrontation between Douglas and the farmer that involved an epic 2-hour struggle which Douglas ultimately won. After that, Covey never attacked him again. Then Douglas was sent to William Freedom, where the living conditions were better. However, he disliked Mrs. Freedom. He planned to escape north by taking a large canoe up the coast of Maryland. His plan was discovered, and as a result, he was sent back to Baltimore to live again with Hugh and Sophia Auld. This time, to learn a trade.
Eventually, in September 1839, dressed as a sailor, he escaped and ended up in New York City. A chance meeting with black abolitionist David Ruggles led him to go to Bedford, Massachusetts. It was at this time he changed his name to Douglas. He became involved in the abolitionist movement where his speaking ability was recognized, and he became an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He traveled the country promoting abolition and, putting pen to paper, wrote a number of books about his slavery.
As a result, Hugh Auld determined to return Douglas to being a slave again. This led Douglas to England, where he lectured all over the country. His English supporters, in turn, purchased Douglas from Hugh Auld, and he became a free man. He returned to American and started to publish a newspaper, “The North Star,” now basing himself in Rochester, New York. Douglas’s home in Rochester became a part of the underground railroad, and he also hosted many fellow abolitionists, including John Brown. Brown invited him to participate in his raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Douglas declined the invitation.
Then the Civil War broke out, and he became a recruiter for the Massachusetts 54th, an all-black infantry regiment. He also visited the White House and met President Abraham Lincoln on three different occasions. He later moved to Washington. During the later years of his life, Douglas remained committed to social justice and the African American community.
Douglas died in 1895, becoming an American icon, having risen from slavery to the highest levels of American society.
THE MISSING INGREDIENT WITH RACISM
Now, to get back to the missing ingredient, let us look at a significant event that happened, as taken from the book “Fredrick Douglas: Abolitionist and Reformer” by Rachel Philips.
“Deep down, Federick hoped to talk with his former owner Thomas Auld. He had vilified Thomas for decades, making him the personification of slave-owning evil in his speeches and writings. He had even written a blistering “Letter to My Old Master, Thomas Auld,” published in the North Star in 1848, which contained not only his very valid grievances, but blame for offenses committed not by Auld, but by others such as the vicious overseer Gore or the ‘slave-breaker,’ Covey.
‘I have never forgotten you but have invariably made you the topic of conversation- thus giving you all the notoriety I could do… I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery… as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy- and as a means to bring the guilty nation, with yourself, to repentance.’
In the letter, Frederick specifically blamed Captain Auld for his Grandmother Bailey’s neglect. ‘my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse to die in the woods- is she still alive? … Send her to me at Rochester, or bring her to Philadelphia, and it shall be the crowning happiness of my life to take care of her in her old age.’
Later Frederick had heard from reliable sources that Captain Auld had indeed cared for Grandmammy Betsey until her death. Recently Frederick had heard that Auld was quite elderly himself and was failing fast.
Had he heard of Frederick’s reaction in the North Star regarding Grandmammy Betsey? Auld had no way of knowing that Frederick, now approaching sixty himself, was beginning to question the vehemence with which he had attacked his former master.
The papers seem to follow my every move nowadays, thought Frederick. Does Captain Auld know I am here in St. Micheals? Will anyone tell him? He hardly felt at liberty to simply visit the man.
‘If you please, Mr. Douglass,’ said a man at the edge of the crowd that had gathered on the arrival of the famous Frederick Douglass, ‘my name is Green. I am Captain Thomas Auld’s servant. He requests the honor of your presence this afternoon at the home of his eldest daughter, Mrs. William Bruff.’
What will I say, O God?
‘I gladly accept Captain Auld’s invitation,’ Frederick answered formally. He followed Green to the corner of Cherry Lane and Locust Street. The front door of the modest white house opened, and Louisa Bruff, Rowena Auld’s daughter, met Frederick courteously. This in itself was enough to excite the crowd that had followed. No black man in St. Micheals had ever been invited to enter through the front door! …
… ‘Mr. Douglass is here, Father,’ she said. Frederick paused at the doorway.
‘Marshal Douglass?’ The pale, shaky old man in the bed struggled to sit up.
Did I expect to see Thomas Auld as he was forty-five years ago? Surely not! But this pitiful sickly creature- was he the brutal master I so feared?
‘I am not Marshal to you, Captain Auld,’ said Frederick gently. ‘Call me Frederick, as you did formerly.’ He paused. ‘How did you react when I ran away?’
A shadow of a smile played on the old man’s face. ‘I always knew you were too intelligent to remain a slave, Frederick. If I had been in your place, I would have done the same.’
‘We were both victims of the slavery system,’ said Frederick grimly. ‘I was not escaping so much from you as from slavery itself.’ He paused awkwardly. ‘I want to apologize for having accused you of abusing my grandmother. I truly thought you had inherited her after Andrew Anthony’s death and left her to die alone and helpless.’
‘I never owned Betsey,’ answered Thomas, with a trace of his old quickness. ‘But when I learned she was living by herself in the woods, I knew that would never do. She was too old. I brought her here and took care of her for the rest of her life.’
‘I never liked slavery,’ Thomas quavered. Tears ran down his emaciated cheeks, and he gripped Frederick’s still-strong hand. ‘I planned to free all of my slaves when they turned twenty-five. I would have freed you, Frederick.’ Silent forgiveness ran slowly, then, like a clear stream between them.
‘When I see my Savior, as I soon shall, I can go in peace,’ said Thomas. ‘Thank you for coming to see me, Frederick. Good-bye.’ He leaned back on the pillow, exhausted by the effort he had made…
… ‘Thank you, Captain Auld,’ said Frederick, bowing to the old man and his daughter. He left, oblivious to the newspaper reporter who trailed after him. Their accounts stirred immediate controversy. Frederick Douglass, the great anti-slavery fighter, had asked his former master to call him by his first name. Frederick Douglass, the great spokesman for black freedom, had grovelled before his old master asking forgiveness. Southern newspapers triumphantly pictured Frederick kneeling before Auld. Young blacks were up in arms; how could their hero behave in such a manner?
Frederick Douglass looked at his wealth, his literary and intellectual accomplishments, and his honored position, the highest any black man had yet achieved in the United States.
I will one day soon be in Thomas Auld’s place. What will these things matter then, O God? I am thankful that our time of hatred is over.”
What is the missing ingredient today with all the talk about racism? The missing ingredient is “forgiveness.” To ask for forgiveness, to seek forgiveness, to receive forgiveness, and to offer forgiveness.
Frederick Douglas was willing to apologize for the accusations he made about Auld. As Rachel Philips notes, “Silent forgiveness ran slowly, then, like a clear stream between them” (Philips R., 2000). Forgiveness. True reconciliation will never be fully realized until forgiveness flows.
Paul put it this way, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NKJV).
So let it be heard. So let it be!
Phillips, R. (2000). Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist and Reformer. United States: Thorndike Press.