Remembering Frederick Douglass at The Cooper Union in 1863

POSTED ON: June 18, 2020

Excerpt from Frederick Douglass's 1863 speech given in the Great Hall

Excerpt from Frederick Douglass's 1863 speech given in the Great Hall

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: 

National Museum of African American History & Culture: Celebrating Juneteenth

Juneteenth: A Celebration Of Resilience

What is Juneteenth? -- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Black Lives Matter and Pandemic Bring Juneteenth Into Focus

New York Times' Brief History of Juneteenth 



  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.