Reading Frederick Douglass on July 3rd

A public reading of one of the 19th century’s most famous speeches will take place at noon on July 3rd at the Strawbery Banke Museum Visitor’s Center in Portsmouth.

“What to the Slaves is the Fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852.

Douglass, one of our nation’s greatest orators and abolitionists, was asked to speak at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In his provocative speech, Douglass said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”

Douglass’s speech remains emotionally powerful and thought-provoking more than a century and a half after he gave it.

People of all ages and different walks of life are asked to gather at noon at the Tyco Visitor Center on Hancock Street to take turns reading parts of the speech until the entire speech has been read.

Community leaders around the country participate in these readings—people such as town officials, teachers and activists, the police and fire chiefs, and heads of key organizations come together with ordinary neighborhood folk.

“Reading Frederick Douglass,” says Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Founder Valerie Cunningham, “causes us to think in new ways about our nation’s history. It’s a great opportunity to open-up a dialogue about race and citizenship, and raises awareness of the role slavery continue to play in our history and national discourse today.”

Governor John Langdon’s Family Heirloom on Display

In addition to reading Douglas, the event will also feature the opening of an exhibit, Cyrus Bruce and the Story of the Governor John Langdon’s Tray.

The tray was gifted to the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire at their Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 17 by Langdon’s descendant John Langdon Marsh.

The story of the Langdon family and enslaved Africans goes back to the mid-17th century.  John Langdon Sr., father to Gov. John Langdon, achieved his wealth and stature through good fortune, successful ventures with other merchants, profits made from enslaved people of African descent, and through free laborers.

Marsh inherited the English silver tray that Gov. John Langdon purchased in 1810. It was passed down through the family to Langdon Marsh’s mother. When she died about 20 years ago, the Marsh brothers agreed Langdon would have the tray because he is the original owner’s namesake.

When he decided to donate the tray, Marsh thought about the servants in his ancestor’s home.

“It occurred to me that Siras Bruce, one of my ancestor’s emancipated (Do we know this?  I don’t know of a record of Cyrus being enslaved?) workers, a kind of ‘major demo’ of the house, would have used it to serve guests in the household and must have handled it far more than any of my ancestors,” Marsh said.

“The people who cared for and used the tray were probably free African American servants or their parents had been released from slavery. So, it seemed to me it was more of a part of their story than the Langdon’s themselves,” he continued.

Along with the tray, the exhibit will feature items of clothing that matches a vibrant description of Siras Bruce found in Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth.

“There could scarcely be found in Portsmouth, not excepting the Governor himself, one who dressed more elegantly or exhibited a more gentlemanly appearance. His heavy gold chain and seals, his fine black or blue broadcloth coat and small clothes, his silk stockings and silver-buckled shoes, his ruffles and carefully plaited linen, are well remembered by many of the present generation.”

The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire exhibit brings to life the story of one of Portsmouth’s early African American citizens.  Larry Yerdon, President of Strawbery Banke Museum comments that “Strawbery Banke Museum is pleased and honored to serve as the temporary caretaker of the Langdon Tray for the Black Heritage Trail.  The tray is a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of Cyrus Bruce to a wider audience.

Libraries, churches, historical societies, community service groups, social justice organizations, and schools are encouraged to see this exhibit and participate in the reading at 12 PM on July 3rd in Portsmouth.

This free public event is sponsored by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire and Strawbery Banke Museum.

Descendants of Governor John Langdon, Larry Yeardon and members of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, Inc,