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Reading Frederick Douglass Together

Neighbors read and discuss “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

The life and works of Frederick Douglass continue to shape our understanding of America. A gifted orator and prescient writer, Douglass forces us to reckon with the legacy of slavery and the promises of democracy.

Mass Humanities supports public readings of Frederick Douglass’s influential address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” around the Commonwealth. Readings and the discussions that follow can take many formats, but each event features a group of people gathered to read parts of the speech until they have completed it.

Click here for a list of 2021 readings.


In addition to producing two signature events, Mass Humanities provides grants to organizations interested in hosting a program in their community.

There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

-Frederick Douglass

frederick douglass

The Speech

Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and lived for many years in Massachusetts. He delivered the Fourth of July speech on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. The most celebrated orator of his day, Douglass’ powerful language, resolute denunciations of slavery, and forceful examination of the Constitution challenge us to think about the histories we tell, the values they teach, and if our actions match our aspirations. To quote Douglass, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the future.”

How to Apply

2021 applications open April 1st and are awarded on the following schedule. Readings can take place anytime within 6 months after the award announcement date, provided the application demonstrates enough time to include Mass Humanities in publicity about the reading.

Applicants hosting programs to align with July 4th will need to apply by the April 26th or May 24th submission dates.

Application Submitted By: Award Announcement Date:
April 26, 2021 May 17, 2021
May 24, 2021 June 14, 2021
June 21, 2021 July 12, 2021
July 12, 2021 August 2, 2021
September 7, 2021 September 27, 2021
September 27, 2021 October 18, 2021

Read the grant guidelines to learn more about the process. Contact Mass Humanities Director of Grants Katherine Stevens if you have additional questions.

Planning a virtual reading?

In 2020 many communities hosted virtual readings, enabling them to engage with friends near and far. Learn how communities read Frederick Douglass in 2020 and check out our virtual reading tips

When do events take place?

Events typically take place in the week surrounding July 4th. Mass Humanities supported readings in 2020 with these communities and others: Boston, Egleston Square, Brockton, Somerville, Concord, Plainfield, Newburyport, East Falmouth, Oaks Bluff, Lynn, Worcester, Worcester State University.

Visit our Calendar page for a list of upcoming readings.

Where do events take place?

Mass Humanities has supported readings in town squares, community centers, churches, museums, libraries, and parks. We believe Douglass’ words belong in public spaces.

Boston Common reading

Each year Mass Humanities partners with the Community Change, Inc. of Boston, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and the Museum of African American History to host a reading on Boston Common. Held near the monument to the 54th Regiment, the event attracts state legislators, students, and members of the public who take turns reading the speech.

Northampton reading

In 2019, Mass Humanities held its first reading in Northampton, where residents gathered in the park outside our headquarters. Historic Northampton, David Ruggles Center, Forbes Library, and the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership co-sponsored the event.


Visit our Resources page to download

  • The speech (abridged and translated versions available)
  • Publicity materials
  • Discussion guide

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