Feb. 14, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass. The fiery orator gave hundreds of speeches during a lifetime as a fugitive slave turned abolitionist, author, and publisher.
On Sept. 24, 1894, just five months before taking his last breath at his Cedar Hill home in Washington, D.C., Douglass gave one of his last speeches at Lannon’s Opera House in Alexandria.
The occasion was the city’s Emancipation Day celebration. In some cities and towns, these annual jubilees had a long and continuous history. In Alexandria, Emancipation Day celebrations began in 1889 and lasted for over a decade before dying out in the early part of the 20th-century.
Both floors of Lannon’s Opera House, whose site is the southwest corner of King and Pitt streets, were packed for Douglass’s speech. None of the newspapers printed the entirety of his speech, but some pointed out his message centered on “the Negro problem.”
The elder statesman expressed his dislike of that term, noting it was prejudicial against black Americans. A year earlier the “Lion of Anacostia” had spoken at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He said, “There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”
2018 will see many commemorative events for the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Here in Alexandria, we should erect a historical marker commemorating the man and his speech. Any day this year would be appropriate, while Sept. 24 would be the most fitting. That’s when the “Lion of Anacostia” gave one of his last roars.