African American History Month: Honoring an Abolitionist

Invited by First Maine Calvary Civil War veterans, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Old Orchard Beach in 1877. (Douglass is down front, just right of center.)

Today kicks-off African American (or Black) History Month, an observance that began in 1976, after the Civil Rights Movement. But its roots date to “Negro History Week,” instituted in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who chose the second week in February to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Just as significant, however, are the February anniversaries of major advances for African Americans: On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. On February 3, 1870, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment, prohibiting the denial of the right to vote based on race.

All this has a little something to do with the image to the right, which happens to be our mystery artifact for today. The gentleman represented in this ca. 1857 lithograph is fiery abolitionist Charles Sumner, the leader of the anti-slavery forces in Masschusetts prior, during, and after the Civil War. (He was invited by Portland’s Anti-Slavery Society to speak in 1850, but declined–as you can read in this letter on Maine Memory Network).

An extremely close friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sumner was a United States Senator from 1851-1874, and a passionate advocate for the rights of Black Americans.

In 1856, his famous “Crime Against Kansas” speech, which advocated for the admission of Kansas as a free state to the Union, resulted in a severe caning (literally until the cane broke) by Representative Preston Brooks, whose uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, was one of the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Northerners were outraged and attended rallies in support of Sumner, who suffered severe physical repercussions as a result of the beating, and probably experienced what today we call post-traumatic stress syndrome. He took a leave of absence from the Senate, but returned in 1859 and stayed for 18 years, a number of which were some of the most tumultuous in United States history.

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