A Constitutional question: History professor investigates missing portion of speech

Dr. Norton Wheeler, a history professor at Missouri Southern State University, wants to know who decided to cut a crucial segment of a recording of a speech originally given by abolitionist, writer and fiery black orator Frederick Douglass.

Douglass presented the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” to a crowd of about 500 people in Rochester, NY, in the summer of 1852.

It was a speech on race that pre-dated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by over 100 years.

“At the time there was a great deal of controversy in the abolitionist movement about the Constitution,” Wheeler says. “One side saw it as a racist document, intended to perpetuate slavery. The other side said the founding fathers always intended for slavery to come to an end and saw slavery of their time as a temporary situation or aberration.”

Norton Wheeler will travel to New York City in May to research the missing portion of a recording of a speech by Frederick Douglass.

Norton Wheeler will travel to New York City in May to research the missing portion of a recording of a speech by Frederick Douglass.

“It’s an extremely eloquent speech,” Wheeler says. “I thought, ‘Where can I find a spirited recording to play in class?’”He bought the entire album on the Internet recorded by the late black American actor Ossie Davis. However, Davis’ recording stopped at about 42 minutes – before the final section of the speech which praises the Constitution.

“I thought, ‘Hmm, isn’t that interesting?’” Wheeler says. “Why would they cut out such a short section?”

Without the final short section, Wheeler feels that Douglass’ 1852 speech does not fully reflect his ideas about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution or the American experience. It gives the listener an incomplete look at the abolitionist’s opinion.

Who decided to leave the final section out?  Wheeler strongly suspects the person to blame may have had a strong, left-wing social agenda. The person might have been someone with deep misgivings about the American Constitution and government, possibly a 1940s-60s radical.

Douglass criticized pastors, the church and the law for condoning slavery in his speech, but the recording left off portion that made his feelings about the Constitution quite clear. Douglass said:

 “[T]he Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them?  Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.”

Wheeler has developed three primary “suspects” who may have had reason, because of their political beliefs, to leave Douglass’ praise of the Founding Fathers out:

No. 1: Ossie Davis
Emmy and Grammy-Award winning actor, poet, playwright and social activist Ossie Davis died in 2005. Davis was a close friend of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other social activists.

“He knew a lot of radicals,” Wheeler says. “But there weren’t any hints that he would want to cover up Douglass’ position.”

No. 2: Moses Asch
Moses Asch was the founder of the Folkways Records label on which the album was recorded.  The label was a major force in documenting folk, world and children’s music. Asch was an important figure in recording such artists as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly Pete Seeger, Dizzy Gillespie and James P. Johnson.

Asch, a lifelong socialist, was a friend to many radicals. However, he was not a communist. But did Asch have sufficient motive to cut the speech?

No. 3: Philip Foner
Philip Foner was an eminent Marxist labor historian. He is the author of the five-volume “Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass.”

He also was the chief historical advisor and producer of Davis’ Douglass recording on Folkways. Foner had paid a price for his beliefs. He was fired from City College of New York during the Red Scare of the early 1950s.

Wheeler says he contacted an archivist at the Smithsonian who sent him a large stack of information related to the album in question.

“Most of it was Foner begging Asch about royalties,” Wheeler says.  “Most of it also was written after the album was recorded.

“All three were extremely radical,” he says. “Davis was less friendly to communists for putting interests of communism above the interests of black America.”

Next spring, Wheeler will go to the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in New York City to study Foner’s correspondence with Asch, Davis and Folkways.

Wheeler will be making his trip in May with the aid of a $700 Faculty Development Grant.  He says he may try to speak to actress and playwright Ruby Dee, the 89-year-old widow of Ossie Davis or, at least, to gain access to her papers.

Wheeler then plans to write a historical journal article.

“Even if the search is inconclusive, I still plan to write the article,” he says.