Douglass viewed in present context

By Jennifer Velazquez/reporter

A local expert on abolitionist Frederick Douglass offered a Black History Month lecture to students Feb. 6 on NE Campus.

Ezra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University, is working on a biography of the renowned abolitionist and human rights activist.

His lecture told of Douglass’ journey from slave to abolitionist. It also drew some parallels between Douglass’ world to that of disenfranchised people today.

Greenspan contended that the inequities Douglass tried to eradicate managed to outlive him. And Greenspan challenged students to “inquire more searchingly, what the legacy of this great African-American means to us in our time.”

“That sentiment underlay the question that the entire talk was designed to lay at the feet of your generation,” Greenspan said. “As you undoubtedly noticed, I came with serious intentions. These are not easy times to grow up in, but your generation, in my opinion, has no alternative but to make the best you can of them — and perhaps improve the society you live in.’’

Citing Douglass’ 1869 speech, “Our Composite Nationality,’’ Greenspan said Douglass made important points  that are still relevant. In particular, Greenspan said Douglass contended that basic human rights and opportunities should be guaranteed to all. In Douglass’ view, those basic human rights included the right to migrate, not unlike today’s political battles over immigration.

Greenspan said the title of his lecture, “Frederick Douglass at 200 Still Doing ‘An Amazing Job,’” was a reference to a comment about Douglass by President Donald Trump.

During a Black History Month event last year, some eyebrows were raised when the president said Douglass “has done an amazing job’’ that is gaining recognition. Some critics questioned whether Trump was aware that Douglass was a 19th century abolitionist. Greenspan said social change is still in order. Racial divisions still exist, immigration policy still threatens the livelihood of residents, and political leaders use divisive rhetoric.

The NE history department invited Greenspan to speak, but his message did not focus solely on the past. He also encouraged students to model Douglass, who educated himself before becoming an  author and public speaker.