A Valentine Story Tucked Into the Heart of Black History Month
I really love Valentine’s Day. Even more than I like getting chocolates and flowers, I love having another reason to say I love you. I want to take every opportunity to tell my husband, my children and grandchildren, and a handful of other precious family members and friends how much joy they add to my life. Since the 1970’s, February has also been a time for remembering and celebrating the important contributions and achievements of African Americans to the story of our nation. Black History month.
This year the two occasions for reflection came together beautifully. Valentine’s Day was the 200th birthday of one of the primary voices of the abolition movement, Frederick Douglass. Every detail of his story is inspiring. He was a true American hero who slipped from the cruel chains of slavery to become one of the most famous intellectuals of his time. But my thoughts today focus on the love connection.
In 1938, he fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman who literally bought him a ticket to freedom, along with the outfit and the papers of a free black sailor. Her love helped him escape slavery, but heaven’s Love brought freedom from the self-destructive chains of rage, hatred, and contempt. His own words describe the escape experienced through the power of the gospel: “I finally found my burden lightened and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever.”
After they were married, they moved to New York where he wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. His powerful prose turned a spotlight on the inhumanity of the institution of slavery—and on his former owner. The book quickly became a best-seller in the United States and Great Britain and was translated into several European languages. Then in 1848, he wrote an emotional open letter addressed to his former master, Thomas Auld, putting him in an uncomfortable spotlight once again. “I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery,” Douglass wrote. However, in a surprising application of Jesus’ “Love your enemies” principle, he ended the letter with these beautiful words: “I entertain no malice toward you personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant . . . I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.”
In 1857, following one of Douglass’s lectures, Amanda Auld Sears, his former master’s daughter invited him to visit in her home. It was an emotional meeting, the first time he met with a member of the Auld family following his escape. Amanda was now an anti-slavery advocate and Frederick enjoyed considerable international acclaim with his books and lectures dragging the hideous darkness of slavery into the light. Imagine the tearful reminiscing of these two—a former privileged white child and a former black child born in slavery as her family’s property. Imagine them looking back over their shared childhood on the same plantation—but looking with eyes and hearts transformed by love. Some of Douglass’s family members were still owned by the Auld family, but now these two were working toward the same righteous goal.
In 1877, shortly before the death of Thomas Auld, Douglass came to the bedside of his former owner, their final face-to-face meeting. The meeting was tearful for both men. Douglass apologized for some erroneous accusations he had lodged against Auld during his fight to end slavery. Auld told him, “I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place, I should have done as you did.” The two discussed death and parted as friends. Gospel love in action.
“Slavery is indeed gone,” Douglass said during a speech in 1881, “but its long, black shadow yet falls broad and large over the face of the whole country.” Here we are nearly 150 years later, and the struggle for justice and equality for blacks continues. We have made progress, but it has been slow—far too slow. News headlines, more and more, feature explosions of rage by blacks still living under that dark shadow. They ask those of us born in white privilege, living comfortably, oblivious to the pain in our black communities, “Where is the rage against such injustice?”
My prayer today is that white Americans, along with their black American brothers and sisters, can translate that rage into the power of love. Let the spirit of Frederick Douglass teach us how to love every person—even our enemies— as much as we love ourselves. Only Love can produce lasting and meaningful change, but it is not something we can pull up from our all too-human hearts. Love that deep is a gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift that will change us from the inside out. I like to imagine a day when black history and white history would simply be American history. The history of one nation healed and united by the true and perfect Love. of God