Whittier Birthplace, Buttonwoods Observe Juneteenth Tonight

Frederick Douglass in 1879.

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Haverhill’s John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace and Buttonwoods Museum will present an event together to observe the nation’s newest holiday, Juneteenth, tonight.

The property where Whittier spent his formative years is a fitting place for the day’s recognition, as his Quaker upbringing helped shape the moral and religious that led him to become one of the country’s leading voices for social justice, and especially the abolition of slavery.

This brought him into contact with author and orator Frederick Douglass, a freed slave whose 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” will be read aloud and discussed by those gathered for the observance.

The goal of the event is to have those who attend each read one of the speech’s 44 sections. That’s a lot of readers, so Janice Williams of the Buttonwoods Museum hopes some folks will offer to read more than one section, or will make a special effort to attend so that there will be enough voices to share the oration. Copies of the speech, with each section printed in English, Spanish, and English large-type, will be distributed and can be taken home.

After Douglass read the speech at a New York gathering in 1852, it would be another 13 years before every person in the United States, including those who were formerly enslaved, would officially be granted freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed more than two years earlier, but word traveled slowly in those days, and Texas was the last to be notified, finally, on June 19, 1865. In December of that year, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery in the United States. On June 17, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden signed a bill into law making June 19, or Juneteenth, a national holiday.

Douglass, in one of his memoirs, made it clear how much he respected and admired Whittier, referring to him as “the slave’s poet,” and using Whittier’s own words to illustrate the evils of slavery.

When Whittier died in 1892, Douglass and his wife, Helen, attended Whittier’s funeral.

The “Reading Frederick Douglass Together” event takes place on Wednesday, June 19, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the apple orchard at Whittier’s Birthplace, 305 Whittier Road. Parking is available on the field next to the apple orchard. Participants should bring a chair or blanket to sit on. Light refreshments will be served. In case of bad weather, it moves to Haverhill’s Buttonwoods Museum, 240 Water St.

This event is supported by a Mass Humanities “Reading Frederick Douglass Together” grant.

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