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150 Years After Frederick Douglass Visited Ypsilanti, Michigan Historian Reflects On His Speeches

Frederick Douglass is one of the most iconic figures in American history, and, during the height of his career, he visited Ypsilanti to give three separate speeches.   We take a look back at his time in Washtenaw County, learn why he was here, and explore where he spoke.

"This building saw a tremendous amount of activity during one of the most important times of American history, the Civil War"

And those historic moments almost never took place at Hewitt Hall in Ypsilanti.  The building where Fredrick Douglass gave two speeches in the 1800's is now known as theMix Space on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington.  Outside the red brick building is where I meet local historian Matt Siegfried.

"The first one was sort of a surprised speech. He was speaking in Kalamazoo, and the editor of the local Ypsilanti paper had gone to Kalamazoo to see Frederick Douglass speak on Lincoln and urged him to come to Ypsilanti to give that speech. So Douglass added another date on his calendar."

Local residents paid 37 cents for general admission and 50 cents for a reserved seat to hear Douglass speak on the third floor of the building.  The hall was demolished in 1937, but the first two floors still stand.  Matt says both black and white residents packed the hall.

"Well, the first two speeches here, the May 1866 speech was eulogizing Abraham Lincoln. It was a speech on Lincoln’s assassination and a speech where Frederick Douglass recounted his own meetings during the Civil War and his own appreciation on Lincoln. The second speech was much different. It was about six months later, and it was a speech in support of radical reconstruction measures and a speech against then president Andrew Johnson. So, Frederick Douglass was supporting things like suffrage of Black men, suffrage for Black women, all women."

Large windows displaying women's clothing now decorate the front of the building of the Mix Space retail shop.  Bonnie Penet is the owner.  She smiles when I bring up Frederick Douglass.

"It was thrilling the first time I heard it nine years ago. And I have imagined him being up above us so many times."

As we walk around the large open space area we enter a room that's used for public art.  Right now, colorful mosaic art pieces created by Ypsilanti Community Schools students are on display.  Bonnie looks up at the ceiling and tells us a fun fact.

"The floor itself is still up there, underneath the roof. So, our landlord has told us that it would be great if it could be restored."

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Douglass’ second speech.  To honor his work, students from Ypsilanti High School created a 6-foot papier-mache sculpture of Douglass.  In their own voices, the students recorded the speech.  They unveiled it on Martin Luther King, Junior Day.

Maximilian Harper was among the students who helped with the project.

"It was a really powerful just reading some of the stuff. There was a passage that was having false hope in the White House, the most power, and we were thinking like, 'Wow, that’s really corresponds with what’s happening today.' So, we felt that it would be the most important one for us to read like really intensely."

For his third and final speech in Ypsilanti, Douglass spoke at the now demolished Ypsilanti Opera House that once stood on Michigan Avenue across the public library.  Matt Siegfried explains the third speech.

"It was clear that the struggles did not win the Civil War, and many things were being reversed. So what he’s actually doing here is urging Black people to continue in a process that has thrown them overboard in those last twenty years. Was the tone a little bit different? Very different. It’s a very different tone in the later speech and is more purely political tone. It’s a campaign speech for a particular candidate in the 1888 election."

Matt says Douglass continued coming back to Ypsilanti because of the thriving black community, due in part to its important role in the Underground Railroad.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News.  Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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