Historic Lebanon Life: Frederick Douglass Speaks in Lebanon, Ohio in 1875

Authored by John J. Zimkus, Historian and Education Director of the Warren County Historic Society’s Harmon Museum in Lebanon, Ohio. Full article will be published at www.wchsmuseum.org

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) has been called “the most influential African American of the nineteenth century.” He escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, and eventually became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. He gained note for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings, and is said to have “made a career of agitating the American conscience.”

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, be they white, black, female, Native American, or Chinese immigrants. The majority of his time, however, he devoted “his immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans.”

Frederick Douglass spoke in Lebanon, Ohio on December 6, 1875, at Washington Hall. The building stood on the southwest corner of Silver and Mechanic streets. The hall was dedicated on December 24, 1856. The south side of the first floor was for the fire department, while a market hall occupied the north side. Upstairs was an auditorium that could seat 500 people.

In 1859, the upper floor was leased to Alfred Holbrook for his normal school, or teachers’ college, to be used as a chapel. In the early 1900s the building was renamed Memorial Hall because of its long association with veterans’ groups. It was torn down in 1963.

In the December 2, 1875 issue of The Western Star newspaper, Frederick Douglass’s lecture was highlighted.

“Fred. Douglass will lecture next Monday evening. His subject is, Our National Capitol, Long residence there and intimate acquaintance with the celebrities, enable Mr. Douglass to speak with some authority, and to give life and interest to his talk.”

“Our National Capital” was one of Douglass’s more popular set speeches. Graham Culbertson, in an article published online by the Cambridge Press in 2014 wrote, “‘Our National Capital’ should not be relegated, as it usually is, to an autobiographical footnote, but is in fact an important document both in Douglass's philosophy and in the history of Washington, DC . . . ‘Our National Capital’ can serve as a capstone for Douglass's career, in which he articulates how an urban environment should function if it is to live up to his ideals.”

The following is the opening paragraph of Frederick Douglass’s speech, “Our National Capital”:


It is not from any sense of my superior knowledge of men and things at the National Capital, or from any decided impression of your special destitution of such knowledge, that I venture to lecture upon the subject announced for this evening. On the contrary, the selection may be best explained upon the principle that large bodies attract small ones, and in the comparison between the large and the small, you are the large and I am the small. You may know much, and I may know little. Nevertheless, having spent in Washington several of the most eventful, stormy, and perilous years of the Republic; having seen it both during and since the late tremendous war; having been a deeply interested spectator and student of passing events; and being compelled by my position and antecedents to view men and things from a peculiar point of observation, and knowing, too, that truth is a very large and many-sided matter, and that it requires a very large variety of men, and women, to tell it, I have naturally enough thought it might be well for me to tell my story about our National Capital.”