July 5, 2021

Steve Hinnefeld: Douglass’ speech should be in school libraries

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Steve Hinnefeld is a former education reporter in Indiana. Here he shares some information about a little-known Indiana law about Frederick Douglass.

Did you know that Indiana schools are required to keep a copy of Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” in their school libraries? I wonder how many schools actually do this. And how many Hoosier teachers assign their students to read or hear Douglass’ powerful words.

The speech, delivered 169 years ago today, is one of 15 “protected writings, documents and records of American history or heritage” identified in Indiana law. The expected documents are on the list: the U.S. and Indiana constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, etc. But it also includes Douglass’ speech, Chief Seattle’s letter to a U.S. president (which may be apocryphal) and abolitionist David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (National Park Service image).

Indiana Code 20-30-5-3 says teachers and school officials may post and read from these documents without fear of censorship. It says students have a right to study them and cite them in their schoolwork. And it says school libraries or media centers “must contain in the facility’s permanent collection at least one copy of each writing or document” on the list.

Surprisingly, the requirement for possessing the documents applies not only to public and charter schools but to private schools that accept state-funded tuition vouchers. (That’s in Indiana Code 20-51-4-1). For the most part, Indiana legislators have bent over backward to impose no requirements on the private, mostly religious schools that receive vouchers.

As I wrote a year ago, I didn’t learn about Douglass’ speech in school (or for a long time afterward), and I was amazed by his scorching rhetoric. Much as the New York Times’ 1619 Project centers the story of slavery in its framing of American history, Douglass turned the tables on America’s Independence Day celebration, speaking from the perspective of a slave.

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