Remembering Frederick Douglass at The Cooper Union in 1863
POSTED ON: June 18, 2020
To commemorate Juneteenth—a celebration of the end of slavery—we are highlighting the electrifying speech made by Frederick Douglass in the Great Hall in response to the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Entitled "The Proclamation and a Negro Army,” the talk, delivered on February 6, 1863, was the first of Douglass’ five appearances at The Cooper Union. Peter Cooper himself had invited Douglass to speak just over a month after the Proclamation had taken effect.
His audience may have been expecting a straightforward victory lap, a celebration after many years of grueling and highly dangerous campaigning for the end of slavery. Yet while Douglass was thrilled with Lincoln’s decision, he understood it as the military strategy it was and decried the great limitation of the document since slavery was still legal in states and territories not at war with the federal government.
By all newspaper accounts of the era, his audience was a supportive one, with applause following many of his remarks including his sharp observations about Northern hypocrisy. “Much as I value the present apparent hostility to Slavery at the North, I plainly see that it is less the outgrowth of high and intelligent moral conviction against Slavery, as such, than because of the trouble its friends have brought upon the country. I would have Slavery hated for that and more.”
In his Cooper Union address, Douglass acknowledged the fruits of abolitionists' labor as affecting change that seemed sudden despite years of continued activism. “It [the world] has its periods of illumination as well as of darkness, and often bounds forward a greater distance in a single year than in an age before.”
Juneteenth was not established until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation with the arrival of the Union army to Galveston, Texas where enslaved people had not learned of the decree.
President Sparks commented, "While every day should be a day to celebrate the profound contributions of Black Americans, I ask everyone in our Cooper community to seize this moment to celebrate the lives of Blacks Americans, to reflect on our country’s history of slavery, and to take action to move our communities and our country towards racial equity and justice."
The Cooper Union will recognize Juneteenth as a school holiday and advocate for its recognition as a national holiday.
If you want to learn more about Juneteenth or are looking for ways to celebrate, you might consider starting with these resources:
What is Juneteenth? -- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.