By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – Gabrielle Hill firmly held the symbolic stone, as she raised her hand, and emphatically proclaimed, “Sacrifice, struggle and solution.”
The trio of words was the first images that popped into her mind after hearing Oliver King’s powerful reenactment of a Frederick Douglass speech Thursday evening, outside of the City of Newburgh’s Downing Park Shelter Café. Amid a beautiful summer evening backdrop, King, clad in a formal white collared shirt, along with distinct, frilly collar piece, and brown and maroon vest of Douglass’ time period, majestically transformed himself into the icon abolitionist, whose academic prowess as well as captivating, articulate wordsmith talents, created treasured changes- for African-Americans and women- in this country and beyond.
That indelible footprint was firmly implanted on Newburgh on August 11, 1870 when Douglass came to deliver an unforgettable speech, paying tribute to the recently ratified 15th Amendment, providing African-American men with the right to vote. It was this legendary visit- along with its 150th Anniversary two years ago- which led Hill and others to create and later be aided by the Frederick Douglass in Newburgh Project- whose arduous efforts have evolved into the officially proclaimed Frederick Douglass Day. Thursday, on that very date, 152 years later, that symbolic day was celebrated for the third year. It’s a tribute that speaks to multiple layers, whose impact transcends time.
“Douglass was a powerful speaker who could speak on anything, and people really wanted to listen to him,” explained King, who has been bringing Douglass to life for over 25 years.
“He taught himself to read at a time when slaves were denied this right; once he learned that alphabet it was so powerful, as he read everything- the Bible, philosophy, politics, Shakespeare- and he knew he would not continue to be a slave.”
Escaping from his slave owners three times, Douglass eventually landed his freedom at age 20. King explained how that special tenacity might have been rooted in a little known fact: Douglass’ mother, a slave at a plantation 12 miles away, would sneak away every night and make the long trek back-and-forth to hold her son; this incredible display of unconditional love quite likely fueled the incredible man he was to become, one who our youth to this day still aspire to emulate.
“Studying Frederick Douglass inspired me to look into issues such as human trafficking, gender bias and neurodiversity,” said Tyrese Billups, a 2022 Newburgh Free Academy graduate who eloquently provided the audience with intriguing background on Douglass before introducing King. “He also inspired me to join my school debate team as well as be able to face many of today’s challenges.”
Pieces of that strength were sprinkled throughout the 1857 speech, given at the West Indies Celebration, King chose for Thursday’s event.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” affirmed the dynamic King as Douglass. “This struggle might be moral or physical, but it must be a struggle.” He continued, “You are going to be taken advantage of by the amount that you don’t stand up.”
As the “stone share” continued in reaction to King’s performance, the actor himself added some of his own thoughts and feelings on the iconic historical figure whose voice has become a part of his very being.
“Douglass took a lot of great risks, and every time I read his speeches I get chills, especially thinking about how he said those things at the time that he did,” said King.
Among the audience members and also sharing his reflections on Douglass following the performance, was Newburgh Councilman, Anthony Grice.
“Never, ever underestimate the power of education,” emphasized Grice, who intently tuned into Oliver’s performance and was visibly moved by its content.
Not only did Douglas’ words remind people of the power of literacy, an education, as well as the need to struggle to persevere, but so too the dire need to get involved with one’s community-state-nation and fight for what is true and right.
“There is an activist in all of us, and we sometimes reignite that by going to events like this one,” said Laura Garcia Balbuena of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District Library.
“They help remind you of how we have to keep going and keep fighting.”