Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass! The Gift of Going Abroad

By Stacy B. Wood, Associate Director of Relations for Minority Serving Institutions

In addition to February 14th being a consumerist holiday designed to make people feel lonely (not that I’m bitter or anything), it also the birthday of one of the most influential figures of the 19th century – Frederick Douglass. Like many slaves, Douglass had no idea what day or even year he was born, and the ambiguity irked him. As he writes in his first autobiography, “A want of information concerning my own [birthday] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.” So in true Douglass fashion, he chose his own date of birth so he could celebrate it.

CIEE also chose February 14th as the deadline to apply for its Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship, a fully funded study abroad experience featuring a guest appearance from his great, great granddaughter, Nettie Washington Douglass. Our zealous efforts to get the word out about this opportunity prior to the deadline have thankfully supplanted any thoughts of romantic dinners (or the lack thereof), and inspired a desire to learn more about Douglass’ own experience abroad.

Like the outstanding students who are selected for the Fellowship, Douglass was on a mission. He travelled to Britain in 1845 to lecture against slavery all over the country, in an effort to gain international support for the abolitionist movement. He succeeded, delivering beautiful works of oratorical art that earned him celebrity status.

The reception Douglass received in the UK was a clear contrast to the treatment he suffered in the States, which Douglass often remarked upon. Even better, his British abolitionist mates purchased his legal freedom. In his Farewell Speech to the British People, delivered in London on March 30, 1847, he proclaims:

But I go back to the United States not as I landed here—I came a slave; I go back a free man. I came here a thing—I go back a human being. I came here despised and maligned—I go back with reputation and celebrity.

While Douglass was emancipated, literally, by his journey abroad, I too felt liberated by my own summer in London over 25 years ago. Like the African-American artists who emigrated to Paris decades before, as discussed in a previous post, On Black History and Study Abroad, I was galvanized by the appreciation and respect that I experienced abroad. It was a refreshing change, that also undermined the authority of America’s racial doctrines.

The students I meet with today through my work at CIEE, continue to  describe the freedom, in very real terms, that a study abroad experience can offer. Students from Morgan State on CIEE’s Berlin internship program for example, observed that they felt safer in Berlin than Baltimore, where their relationship with law enforcement was congenial rather than antagonistic. A few also enjoyed their own mini celebrity status.

Douglass could have elected to stay in the UK, and enjoy the benefits that must come with being the most photographed man of his time. Many a study abroad alum, myself included, has also questioned whether they should return to the States (In fact, I’m still wondering how I ended up in the same zip code as my birth for goodness sakes!)  But Douglass was not one to rest on his laurels. Returning to his Farewell Speech:

I prefer living a life of activity in the service of my brethren. I choose rather to go home; to return to America. I glory in the conflict, that I may hereafter exult in the victory. I know that victory is certain. [Cheers.]

I go to suffer with them; to toil with them; to endure insult with them; to undergo outrage with them; to lift up my voice in their behalf; to speak and write in their vindication; and struggle in their ranks for that emancipation which shall yet be achieved by the power of truth and of principle for that oppressed people.  

Let’s hope that the Global Fellows, or anyone that spends time abroad, returns from their journey as fired up as Douglass. If the applications I’ve seen thus far are any indication, they already are. Their commitment to service is an inspiration. If they can change the world, surely I can buy my own darn flowers and chocolate!

On this Valentine’s Day, the adopted birthday of Frederick Douglass, and midway through Black History Month, (the theme of which is migrations, appropriately enough), let’s celebrate the passion of these potential ambassadors, and Frederick Douglass’ own transformative trip.

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