Abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass spoke at Hillsdale College almost exactly 150 years ago, as the Civil War raged. His visit has become a cherished part of the college’s legacy.
But Douglass visited Hillsdale a second time, on Sept. 27, 1888. Retired history professor Arlan Gilbert, who wrote several books on Hillsdale College’s past, said he had not heard of this second visit until now.
“It’s another piece of evidence that Hillsdale was an abolitionist college,” Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn said. “Hillsdale is an anti-slavery college on both Christian and political levels.”
Douglass (1818 – 1895) was born into slavery, escaped to freedom, and become a champion of equal rights for black Americans. He wrote several versions of his autobiography, including “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.”
The Hillsdale College Herald, the Collegian’s predecessor, published the following notice about the 1888 visit: “Frederick Douglass, the noted colored orator, will deliver a Republican address at the rink this afternoon.”
As part of Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison’s campaign, Douglass spoke at the Hillsdale roller skating rink, where city and college groups hosted large events.
After the event, the Hillsdale Standard, a city newspaper, reported that the crowd was so large that “hundreds were turned away.” A “special train” from Jonesville and Allen brought 400 attendees.
Douglass first visited the college on an invitation to lecture from the Ladies Literary Union, one of Hillsdale’s five literary societies. Before and during the Civil War, at least 10 other abolitionists spoke at the college.
“We were strongly abolitionist,” Gilbert said.
On Jan. 21, 1863, Douglass gave a lecture in the college chapel titled, “Popular Error and Unpopular Truth.”
Though no transcript of either Douglass speech survives, a report on a speech entitled “Truth and Error” was printed in the February 1863 edition of Douglass’ Monthly, one of the abolitionist’s many publications. College archivist Linda Moore and Gilbert believe the speech described in the document is similar to his first speech at Hillsdale College.
“We can’t be sure that those are the exact words,” Gilbert said. “But he was on a five-town speaking tour. One of those five towns was Hillsdale.”
A report published in the Chicago Tribune describes Douglass as saying that the Civil War was the logical sequence following the wrong of human slavery.
“We had attempted to contravene the laws of God by transforming men into beasts of burden,” the report reads.
Two days after Douglass spoke, the Ladies Literary Union reported that it sold $100.55 in tickets to the event.
In 2004, the college purchased a photograph taken of the abolitionist during his first Hillsdale visit (photograph on A1).
“The one we own is the only surviving original print,” Arnn said. “It’s very rare.”
The photograph was from a series of 62 “Carte de Visites” produced from his visit. “CDVs,” as they are called, were photographs mounted on paper cards designed to be traded among friends and visitors, a hobby that grew popular around the time of the Civil War.
Though the college lost a bidding war for the card on eBay, Arnn negotiated a deal with the new owner to purchase the card for $5,000.
“I said in an email — this is paraphrased — ‘Frederick Douglass is the most honored guest in all of our history. The photograph belongs here. I will buy it from you at a considerable profit,’” Arnn said.
The card is archived in the fireproof vault in Central Hall.
Someday soon, a statue of Douglass will be erected as part of the “Liberty Walk,” Arnn said. Currently, the Arnns and other unnamed donors have donated money for the statue.
“We don’t know when. We’re working toward that,” Arnn said. “It won’t be very long.”
A Douglass statue has been discussed since the beginning of the “Liberty Walk” in 2002.