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Wayne Gannaway: Frederick Douglass, and his visit to Winona

March 20, 2019

David Blight, Yale University historian and author of the 2018 award-winning biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” recently said that “seeing and hearing (Frederick) Douglass became through the course of the 19th century a kind of wonder of the world. If you came to the United States you wanted to see him speak, if you could.”

To think that on March 16, 1867, Frederick Douglass, the former fugitive slave, abolitionist and champion of civil rights, delivered a speech to a packed lecture hall in Winona.

Winona’s founders left a mixed a legacy, particularly in the treatment of Native Americans, but in the wake of the Civil War, local Republicans (including the publisher of the “Winona Daily Republican”) demonstrated a commitment to equality and expanding citizenship and voting rights to black Minnesotans. Other Winonans were not so enlightened, writing articles in the “Winona Democrat” that dripped with bigotry against Douglass and contempt toward Republicans.

A local hotel denied service to Douglass. That did nothing to dampen turn-out for the great orator’s lecture. He praised the North for helping defeat the Confederacy and its slave society, but warned that white supremacy lived on and threatened newly freed southern blacks and the U.S. Constitution itself. Considering the nation’s history in race relations, Douglass was prophetic in his speech to Winonans.

We should celebrate Douglass’ visit to Winona and recognize those early city leaders who invited him here and worked for equality.

Check out David Blight’s book and for more information about Douglass’ visit to Winona and read my article “ The Perils of Peace: Frederick Douglass, Winona and Civil Rights in Minnesota After the Civil War,” in “Minnesota History” magazine at http://bit.ly/douglass_winona.

Wayne Gannaway, Lynchburg, Va.