By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – “That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good to be diligently sought,” Frederick Douglass emphasized 178 years ago when referring to his slave master, Mr. Auld in Baltimore. “And the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.”
Those words, contained in a long excerpt from Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass were eloquently delivered Thursday night, August 11, at the City of Newburgh’s Tyronne Crabb Memorial Park by actor G. Oliver King. Clad in a long brown overcoat, white shirt and frilly adornment of the time period, King once again brought to life the legendary abolitionist, ardent advocate, and articulate wordsmith, who cherished language, on the symbolic, late summer day when Douglass visited Newburgh, celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment.
This year’s undercurrent theme, “Celebrating and recognizing the influence of our dedicated educators,” paid tribute to Douglass’ passionate insistence to secure his elusive passageway to freedom: Learning to read and write. Whether it was using Mistress Auld’s foundation of learning letters, sneaking peaks at her son Thomas’ writing book, reading labels on the ships, or using bread and trickery with his educated contemporaries to attain priceless language skills, Douglass remarkably persevered in his mission to not only become literate, but to use those pearls to inspire and transform change across the nation while awakening them to the atrocities of slavery. Learning about Douglass’ remarkable journey from slave to trailblazer, Gabrielle Hill keenly realized how pressing it was to remind others of the indelible footprints he left behind on our landscape.
“Black history is America’s history; we are going to continue to celebrate because Frederick Douglass inspires us,” Hill welcomed in guests, including several local dignitaries, including Senator, Rob Rolison and Assemblyman, Jonathan Jacobson. “His words are still relevant today, and there is still work to be done.”
Much of that work is being laid in the foundation our educators are adeptly providing youth. And in that spirit, Hill, along with others on the Frederick Douglass Committee, wanted to add a special component to this year’s Douglass event, a formal recognition of three area educators, who have approached their work with a similar focus, commitment and love that Douglass did. Each one has shown determination on their quest to open their students’ minds while unequivocally making them realize their potential- guided by a solid education- is limitless.
One of those honorees was William Walker, a long-time, now retired English Teacher at Newburgh Free Academy, who was introduced by his youngest daughter as someone who “taught me the power to never stop educating myself.”
“We are all people, and have the power to be like Frederick Douglass; other people’s stories are our stories,” Walker said as he proceeded to show photos of his own family members, particularly his mother and father, in order to visibly reveal the power of those bonds. “My parents put every ounce of energy into their children, and it came from a spirit that we all have just like Mr. Douglass.”
Another educator cited for his excellence was Councilperson, Anthony Grice, who is also a veteran Newburgh Elementary Reading Teacher. Pointing to his rough beginnings in foster care, Grice proceeded to discuss the salvation and power education and memorable teachers provided in his early day molding.
“I am so honored and humbled by this recognition,” said Grice. “Teachers really shaped who I am, and I try to really do what I do, not for any awards or honors, but just to make a difference in my community.”
The final educator saluted, whose commitment to his mission of making all students in the City of Newburgh literate, profoundly ripples with Douglass’ prioritization of the potency of language.
“I want to touch every young person’s heart, and for them to be just as excited about education as I am,” said Newburgh elementary school teacher Conway, also Vice President of the Highland Falls-Newburgh NAACP Chapter. “Frederick Douglass’ ability to read gave him the power to not be objectified.” He added, “More than anything, I want children to know, when they are in my room, you are my champion.”
Few can doubt, Douglass’ impact remains a pivotal, positive piece in the City of Newburgh’s soul.