African American Activists in Scotland

Frederick Douglass was one of many African American freedom-fighters to campaign for the end of slavery by undertaking extensive antislavery lecturing tours in Scotland. While he worked tirelessly as ‘Scotland’s Anti-slavery agent’ by delivering hundreds of public lectures in villages, towns, and cities across Scotland, the fight for the abolition of slavery and in support of all social justice campaigns was not only his struggle.

Douglass was one among hundreds of early African American antislavery campaigners living and working in Scotland including Sarah Parker Remond (1826-1894), Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873), Jesse E. Glasgow Jr. (circa 1837-1860), William Wells Brown (circa1814-1884), Ellen Craft (1826-1891), William Craft (1824-1900), Josiah Henson (1789-1883), Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862-1931), and Moses Roper (1815-1891), among many more radical activists and pioneering reformers.

Scotland as a nation and Edinburgh as a city are at the heart of Douglass’s journey from slavery to freedom. When he made the transatlantic voyage in August 1845, he was on the run as a ‘fugitive slave.’ In April 1845, he had published his first autobiography, ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’. It was an instant bestseller. Douglass put his life at risk by naming his white enslavers. Audiences now knew that Frederick Douglass had started his life in slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Here began the first role Scotland was to play in his life. Douglass had made it to freedom in the northern United States under the pseudonym of Frederick Johnson but there were too many men of that name. As he recalled, Nathan Johnson, a free-born African American freedom-fighter Underground Railroad conductor, ‘had just been reading the “Lady of the Lake,” and at once suggested that my name be “Douglass.”’

For Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved man, the association with Sir James Douglas (1286-1330), the famous white Scottish knight immortalised by white Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) in his narrative poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’, went beyond their shared surnames. Frederick Douglass saw in James Douglas,a world-renowned white Scottish commander during the Scottish Wars of Independence (1296-1357), a kindred spirit as an individual who was equally committed to the overthrow of tyranny, despotism, and oppression. Writing from Perth, on 27 January 1846, Douglass confided his newfound sense of liberty by urging, ‘Frederick Douglass, the freeman, is a very different person from Frederick Bailey, the slave.’

Living on Scottish soil, Douglass was jubilant: ‘I feel myself almost a new man – freedom has given me new life.’ He was even fired with a new courage in facing down his white enslavers by informing one of his former aggressors, ‘When I used to meet you [in Maryland], I hardly dared to lift my head and look up at you.’ The situation could not be more different now in the land of James Douglas: ‘If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient ‘black Douglas’ once met his foes, I presume I might summon sufficient fortitude to look you full in the face,’ Douglass declared. He went so far as to threaten his white racist persecutor that, ‘were you to attempt to make a slave of me, it is possible you might find me almost as disagreeable a subject, as was the Douglas to whom I just referred.’

On 29 January, 1846, Douglass, all too painfully and powerfully aware that Scotland was itself a nation that had not only built its wealth on the profits of ‘human traffickers in blood’ but that wilfully endorsed white racist discriminatory and persecutory practices, he nevertheless took ‘heart and hope’ in ‘old Scotland’ as a vital crucible in the unending struggle for human rights. As he declared, ‘Scarcely a stream but what has been pouring into song, or a hill that is not associated with some fierce and bloody conflict between liberty and slavery.’ On remarking that he had seen ‘the Grampian mountains that divide east Scotland from the west,’ he recalled, ‘I was told that here the ancient crowned heads used to meet, contend and struggle in deadly conflict for supremacy’ only to confide, ‘I see in myself all those elements of character which were I to yield to their promptings might lead me to deeds as bloody.’ Living a ‘new life’ in Scotland, Douglass lost faith in peaceable antislavery protest and endorsed the ‘bloody deeds’ of war. As the history of the United States confirms, he was to be proved right: slavery as a national institution ended not as a result of abolitionist activism, but due to the ‘deadly conflict’ of Civil War.

While Douglass celebrated the Grampian Mountains for their sublime splendour, it was Edinburgh that he celebrated for its epic beauty. Writing from 33 Gilmore Place on 30 July 1846 he declared, ‘I am now in Edinburgh… one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it.’ As a man who had suffered personal attacks and abuse on a daily basis in the US, he exalted in his new found social status: ‘Everything is so different here from what I have been accustomed to in the United States. No insults to encounter – no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth. I am treated as a man an equal brother. My color instead of being a barrier to social equality – is not thought of as such.’ But while he exalted in his own newfound freedoms in Scotland, he was aware that the fight for ‘social equality’ and for equal rights was far from over for all people of colour living, working and fighting to survive the discriminatory and persecutory practices of a white supremacist government not only in Scotland but across Britain and Ireland and Europe.

Inspiring controversy and debate for his leading role in the radical and uncompromising campaign against the moral villainy of the Free Church of Scotland and its nefarious acceptance of donations from white US enslavers which aggrandised its ‘blood-stained coffers,’ Douglass spearheaded the protest movement with the slogan, ‘Send back the blood-stained money!’ While Douglass and his advocates conceded that they failed in ‘making them “Send back the Money,”’ they were jubilant that they succeeded in ‘enlightening the whole people’ of Scotland ‘on the subject of American Slavery.’ Dedicating a lifetime to the fight for social justice, Douglass believed in universal human rights: ‘Right is of no sex, truth is of no color – God is the Father of Us All, and All We are Brethren.’

Today, Frederick Douglass’s words live on to inspire social justice movements worldwide: ‘Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!’

‘Scotland is now all in a blaze of antislavery excitement’
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)