On February 9, 1877, the Democratic Banner, Mount Vernon’s “leading publication” according to their header, announced that Frederick Douglass — an abolitionist, writer and politician — was scheduled to give a lecture in town. “Manager Basset has secured the services of the eminent colored orator,” the Banner wrote, “to lecture in Kirk Hall, on the evening of Feb. 21 — the subject of his talk, ‘Our National Capital.’”
Before Douglass’ arrival, the Banner wrote about the event expectantly, announcing in a celebratory — if not condescending — tone that Douglass was “the greatest orator the colored race has ever produced.” The Banner also speculated that the event would be popular with Mount Vernon’s residents. “As this is the first (and perhaps only) lecture of the season,” wrote the paper, “it will no doubt be heavily attended.”
After Douglass’ speech, however, the reporting took on a different tone. “The ‘Lecture’ of Fred Douglass, on Tuesday evening, was no lecture at all, but a mere political speech, of the most radical and offensive character — laudatory of the Republicans and abusive of the Democrats,” the Banner wrote. “It was the same speech, with a ‘few slight variations,’ that the ‘colored orator’ was hired to deliver during the last Presidential campaign. The audience was simply disgusted.” This comment, published on February 28, was later quoted in a rival paper, the Republican. Although there is plenty of reporting on the reaction of Mount Vernon residents to Douglass’ speech, there is next to no discussion of its content.
Douglass’ speech in Mount Vernon was one stop on his tour of the Midwest that year: when Douglass had arrived in Ohio, he had already delivered the same speech in Chicago weeks before.
At the time, Douglass was living in Washington, D.C. on an estate, and his speech used the city as a symbol of the United States’ progress. He began his speech by praising recent construction in D.C., which included the erection of the Washington Monument. “An American citizen cannot do a better thing for himself or his country than to visit Washington,” Douglass said. He then contrasted the state of the city in 1877 with its historical sympathies to slavery, saying that D.C. was “surrounded by a people accustomed to look upon the youthful members of a colored man’s family as a part of the annual crop.” Douglass praised the move in D.C. from a culture of Southern Democrats to that of Northern Republicans.
Douglass delivered this speech during an incredibly divided time in American history: The wounds of the Civil War were still fresh, and the project of reconstruction had been underway for decades. Many members of the Democratic party had accused Republican president-elect and Kenyon alumnus Rutherford B. Hayes, class of 1842, of election fraud in multiple states. The election of Hayes would lead to the end of reconstruction and the effective disenfranchisement of African-American voters in every Southern state. To this day, Knox County remains an area of conflicting political opinions, and for one month in 1877, Mount Vernon played a small, but significant part in this history by hosting one of the most influential figures of the century.