POUGHKEEPSIE – Frederick Douglass, a slave turned abolitionist, spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 people in Poughkeepsie on August 2, 1858. On Sunday, August 1, actor and former White House staffer for President Obama, Paul Oakley Stovall, recited parts of the Douglass speech to a crowd of hundreds that gathered on top of College Hill Park.
As people gathered and endured a brief torrential rainfall, Stovall told of how Douglass had spoken to Poughkeepsie in conjunction with the anniversary of Great Britain’s Emancipation Day on August 1, 1834, marking the day that the abolishment of slavery began in the British Empire. He (Douglass) spoke at the park for two straight hours. As the sun began to set, Douglass indicated that he was not done with his message and led the group to a nearby church where he spoke for an additional hour. Douglass railed for the need for slavery to end in the United States. Several years later, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Douglass said abolitionists were working to end slavery in America without the use of force. “Our intents are charitable – not wicked,” when he called for the end of enslaving Africans.
Sunday’s event was sponsored by Celebrating the African Spirit (CAS), a non-profit organization in Poughkeepsie. Carmen McGill, co-chair of CAS told the audience that their mission “commemorates the contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the building of the City of Poughkeepsie” and noting that CAS engages in social action projects to address the consequences of institutionalized racism.”
Stovall told Mid-Hudson News that he stumbled upon the backstory of Douglass when he was in Florida right as the pandemic struck the country. The acclaimed actor was part of the touring group of “Hamilton,” the musical. When the stages went dark, he enlisted as a writing instructor for students interested in playwriting. He taught with members of the Florida theater group, “Players by the Sea.” One of his fellow instructors encouraged him to explore the life of Douglass, who had been forced to hide in Ireland because of his outspokenness in America. It was in Ireland, Stovall said, that Douglass honed his oratory skills. Stovall traveled to Ireland and spent three months researching Douglass, including retracing his steps through the country. Stovall became so enthralled with the work that he has written an eight-part series documenting the life of Douglass. The multi-disciplined Stovall indicated that he has met with several descendants of the Frederick Douglass and they have endorsed the work. The next step is to market it to studios in hopes that it is put into production.
The audience learned from Stovall that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed human being of the 19th century, and was never captured smiling on film. “He didn’t want to propagate the image of a happy slave,” the actor said.
After listening to the recital, Mayor Rob Rolison addressed the audience. The City of Poughkeepsie and Councilwoman Yvonne Flowers were co-sponsors of the event. “Words have a lot of meaning and some words mean more than others,” Rolison. “Some words you really need to hear.” The mayor called the event one that he will forever remember.
Yvonne Flowers told of the need for people to research the history of Poughkeepsie, admitting that she did not know that Frederick Douglass gave several speeches in Poughkeepsie. “Our children need to learn the history – our kids need to hear these words,” she emphasized, referring to the “Poughkeepsie Words of Frederick Douglass.”
A portion of Stovall’s performance: