“Give all men a chance and fair play” – Frederick Douglass in Pottsville

Few Americans in the 19th century were more famous than Frederick Douglass. The renowned speaker and author escaped slavery in Maryland, became a leader in the abolition movement, recruited black soldiers for the Union Army, and became a major political force during Reconstruction. And in October 1867, Douglass came to Pottsville to speak on one of his nation-wide lecture tours.

Pottsville
Pottsville in the late 1860s. (NYPL)

Douglass arrived in Schuylkill County for a two-night lecture program that benefited the area’s Colored Workingmen’s Association. He gave two separate presentations. One focused upon the political battles occurring in Washington between Republicans in Congress and the much maligned President Andrew Johnson. The next lecture was one that Douglass gave across the nation to much acclaim. “The Self-Made Man” became a part of the orator’s repetroire in 1859. He gave it hundreds, if not thousands of times, in his long speaking career. Here is one version of the speech.

Douglass spoke at Union Hall in Pottsville and stayed at the American House hotel during his time in the Schuylkill County seat. The following story was published in the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville on November 2, 1867.

Frederick Douglass

This distinguished colored orator lectured on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings last in Union Hall, this borough. He had large and brilliant audiences on both evenings and our citizens were much pleased with the dignity and force with which he enunciated his sentiments based as they are on truth, justice and right.

As a speaker Mr. Douglass is fluent and eloquent. On Tuesday night he held the fixed and undivided attention of the audience for more than two hours, and was frequently interrupted by the most enthusiastic applause. He was introduced to the audience by John Bannan, Esq.

The subject of Mr. Douglass’s Tuesday evening lecture was, “a Republican form of government as opposed to one-man power.” The subject was powerfully handled by the speaker, and the changes suggested to place the governing power more immediately in the hands of the people in place of delegating it absolutely to a single man, who if bad, wields it to the detriment of the interests of the nation, were as novel as they were striking.

Mr. Douglass has evidently thought much and correctly on the subject. His claims that the rights of man without respect to color or race should be respected and guaranteed by the Republic, find a response in the mind of every just citizen. We trust that ere long, it will be the policy of the nation as enunciated by its Congress.

The subject of Mr. Douglass’s lecture on Wednesday evening was “Self-made Men.”

Mr. Douglass in this lecture dwelt upon the qualities necessary to self-made men, and elegized the dignity of labor. Give all men a chance and fair play. Even the negro. Give him a chance. If he will work and live, it is well. If he will be lazy and die, it is well too. But give him a chance. If he wants to go to school, let him. If he wants to go to the ballot box, let him. If he wants to enter the workshop, let him. If he wants to eat dinner at Pennsylvania Hall, let him, if he is willing to pay for it.

In reference to the capacity of the negro race, Mr. Douglass gave instance of men black as the ace of spades, who had become eminent mathematicians, inventors, soldiers, and statesmen. The lecturer dwelt strong on the necessity of labor to success in life, and on the fact that it is more highly honored in this than any other country on the globe. The entire lecture which had evidently been carefully prepared was filled with the most useful practical suggestions.

Mr. Douglass left on Thursday morning for Lancaster, where he is engaged to lecture.

The Colored Workingmen’s Association realized $133 profit by securing Mr. Douglass’s services.

Mr. Douglass during his visit here sojourned at the American House, and was the recipient of much gratifying attention at the hands of the citizens of our Borough.

More research needs to be done about the “Colored Workingmen’s Association,” but we are hoping to provide content about them soon.

This is an amazing piece of history to find. We had realized that Douglass made a stop in this part of the Coal Region on his speaking tour. From the article, it sounds like he received a warm welcome in Pottsville.


Featured Image: Frederick Douglass in the 1860s (LOC)

Want to learn more about the incredible life of Frederick Douglass?

We highly recommend this David Blight biography of Douglass!


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