Frederick Douglass is a towering figure of American History. Escaping slavery in 1838, he became one of the great social reformers, passionately advocating for the end of slavery and the emancipation of African-Americans, women and others who were marginalised from the American political system.
He was known to be a gifted orator and he presented moral and political issues in an eloquent style that is still accessible for modern readers. It is testament to his insightful political campaigning that he remains, 122 years after his death, an ever-present part of the discussion on issues affecting American society.
In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography which outlined his experiences as a slave and established him as a popular writer. Coupled with his public speaking he became a well known and important figure in the abolitionist movement alongside William Lloyd Garrison. However, his speaking tours were not free of controversy as supporters of slavery would frequently resort to violence to prevent Douglass from promoting his abolitionist message.
This sudden rise in publicity also raised fears that Douglass’ former master would appear to reclaim his ‘property’. Douglass was advised that perhaps it would be a good time to undertake a foreign speaking tour and he agreed. In August 1845 he left America and began a two year tour of Scotland, Ireland and England.
One of the objectives of the tour was to undermine the moral and religious support that writers and churches in Scotland were providing to slave holders in the American South. The Free Church of Scotland became a particular target of the charismatic Douglass and his powerful speeches.
The Free Church was formed in 1843 when evangelicals from the Church of Scotland became angry at what they saw as the state’s increasing interference in the independence of the Kirk. Known as ‘The Disruption’, the separation bitterly divided the nation and deprived the Free Church of the public money that they previously received as part of the established Kirk.
The breakaway ministers instead sought to raise funds elsewhere, including from Presbyterians in the Southern States, many of whom were closely connected with slavery.
Seeking to discredit those that would support the institution of slavery, Douglass successfully championed the slogan ‘Send the Money Back’ and it became a rallying call for all those across Scotland who advocated abolition in the United States.
Frederick Douglass appears to have visited Greenock on at least three separate occasions.
On the 10th of April 1846, the now defunct Greenock Advertiser published a notice for an anti-slavery meeting to be attended by Frederick Douglass and Massachusetts abolitionist James Buffum. The meeting was held at the ‘West Blackhall Street Chapel’, which was known in more recent time as St Columba’s Gaelic Church. The building is now owned by HG Pypers, a furniture company.
The church building itself has an interesting history not least because it was designed by the prominent local architect James Dempster. It was originally constructed in 1823 but was closed during the disruption of 1843. It was subsequently put up for sale and reopened in 1857. The building has had various names over the past 160 years, including St Thomas’ Church and the North Parish Church.
A preserved letter from William Lloyd Garrison shows that Frederick Douglass visited Greenock again in September 1846. Unfortunately the exact location of the meeting was not recorded in the letter, other than reference to a “very large church” in which a “somewhat numerous and respectable audience was present”. Garrison records the meeting as having occurred on the 21st of September, 1846.
Garrison recalled that Douglass opened the meeting and began his usual critique of the Free Church. The arguments put forward by Douglass provoked hissing from the audience, but also some applause. Garrison then took the stage and invited those that denied the charges against the Free Church to speak from the platform. The silence that followed was described by Garrison as being “deep as death” while the “boldest held his breath.”
As the meeting came to a conclusion it was also agreed that an auxiliary anti-slavery league would be formed in Greenock, although Garrison lamented that “more will need to be done in that place, as I am told that it is sadly lacking in intellectual activity and moral life.”
Following the meeting, Garrison and Douglass spent the night at the Temperance Hotel in Greenock. They departed for Glasgow the next day.
In 1845 there was a Temperance Hotel located at Cathcart Square, known locally as Melvin’s Temperance Hotel. My understanding is that this is the same hotel which by the 1860s was known as Buchanan’s Temperance Hotel, located at number 3, Cathcart Square. The hotel was bought by the Town Council in 1871 as the land was needed to build the new municipal buildings.
If this was the hotel that Douglass and Garrison visited in September 1846, one can speculate that perhaps the “very large church” mentioned by Garrison was the Mid-Kirk, just across the square from the Temperance Hotel.
The tour of 1846 was not the last time in which Douglass visited Greenock. He held another public meeting in Greenock on the 23rd of January 1860 in the town hall.
Tensions in the United States had risen considerably since Douglass’ last tour of Scotland. Animosity between the Northern and Southern states was pushing the country towards civil war. In October 1859 the abolitionist John Brown had attempted to incite a slave rebellion but was captured after a skirmish at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
John Brown had invited Douglass to participate in the rebellion, but Douglass refused on the grounds that it was unlikely to succeed. The raid on Harper’s Ferry was ultimately a failure, and most historians now also agree that it pushed the United States closer to civil war by escalating political tensions. Douglass was forced to flee to Canada in the aftermath of the failed insurrection.
When Douglass spoke at Greenock’s Town Hall in January 1860 it was against the context of this heightened tension. It’s important to note that although the abolitionist movement had proven itself an influential political force, slavery was still firmly entrenched in the southern states and there was no prospect of it ending in the immediate future.
Shortly after his public meeting in Greenock, Douglass received the news that his daughter had died. He ended his tour of Scotland and England, returning to the United States via Canada to avoid detection.
In December 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. The resulting political crisis led to the secession of the Southern states and the American Civil War. The Confederacy was eventually defeated but at a terrible cost as more than 750,000 soldiers were killed. Although the abolition of slavery was not one of Lincoln’s original war goals, slavery was abolished in the United States following the conclusion of the conflict.
Douglass lived to see the end of slavery but African-Americans still faced significant levels of discrimination. He spent the rest of his life campaigning against racism and for greater rights for women and African-Americans. He died in 1895 at the age of 77.