Commemorating Frederick Douglass’ 200th Anniversary with His Famous Speech: “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”



On the hill top of the Cedar Hill estate of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the musicians of DC Strings, actor Darius Wallace and residents of the area celebrated the 200th anniversary of the life of Douglass as the sound of the 4th of July fireworks reverberated in the background. The evening commemoration was the culmination of activities and a tour of the estate hosted by the National Park rangers to celebrate the life of a man who escaped slavery and became a great orator, writer, statesman and national leader of the abolitionist movement.

As Douglass stated, “To those who have suffered in slavery, I can say, I, too have suffered… to those who have battled for liberty, brotherhood and citizenship, I can say, I, too have battled.”

The dramatic reenactment by actor Wallace of Douglass’ famous 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July” decried the contradiction of the American Constitution that declared freedom and liberty to its white citizens whilst enslaving millions of people of African descent. The speech, given by Douglass on the 5th of July 1852, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, NY was brilliantly recounted by actor Wallace, who transported the audience to a tragic period of American history.

DC Strings, a Washington DC-based orchestra under the leadership of Artistic Director Andrew Lee, inspired the audience with its diverse programming conducted by two remarkable conductors Stanley Thurston and Ahmed Alabaca. DC Strings Board Member Oliver Spurgeon and MC for the evening introduced the orchestra and the featured soloists, Sopranos Melissa Chavez, Candace Williams and Bass-Baritone Christian Simmons. Joined by the audience in song, the three soloists opened the program by performing a dramatic rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s National Negro Anthem.

As dusk set in over the Frederick Douglass’ estate, DC Strings performed the eerily haunting Gustave Mahler Adagettio from the 5th Symphony as conductor Thurston created an other-worldly quality to the rendition.

In the spirit of the Independence Day event, Melissa Chavez sang Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. Her rich and soaring voice paid homage to a classic made popular decades ago by the late singer Kate Smith, known as the “First Lady of Radio.” She also sang I Dreamed a Dreamed from Les Miserables capturing with great passion the piece’s beautiful melodic line.

Candace Williams’ profound interpretation of the spiritual, Guide my Feet, evoked the steadfast faith in God of those like Frederick Douglass who sought freedom for his people. As a soulful prayer, bass Christian Simmons sang Bring Him Home from Les Miserables. His wonderful musical interpretation and dynamic theatricality evoked the song’s feeling of longing. He was later joined by Melissa Chavez in the duet Wheels of a Dream from Ragtime, performing with great intensity the song’s hopeful dream for America: 

“With the promise of happiness
And the freedom he’ll live to know.
He’ll travel with head held high,
Just as far as his heart can go
And he will ride-
Our son will ride-
On the wheels of a dream.”

DC String’s musical selections added an inspiring dimension to a unique creative experience. Conductor Alabaca must be applauded for the brilliant arrangements of most of the pieces in the program. As a conductor of several works, he had a commanding presence that connected with the audience.

DC Strings invited the audience to watch the fireworks while listening to their performance of the 1st Movement of the Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky and the Hoe Down from Rodeo by Aaron Copeland. This “Independence Day Anacostia Concert” demonstrates DC String’s commitment to make classical musical accessible to all. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.