Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune and is written by Beth Duda is director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and also the author of “Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, a Walk to Respect.”
Social and political polarization. Is that what we want, as an escalating, intractable way of life in America? It need not be.
History provides powerful examples of ordinary men and women with different opinions and agendas coming together to produce positive change.
In 1863, the height of the Civil War, two men met for the first time. Though both resided in the North, their ideological differences were stark. One, a radical with a fiery spirit, called for immediate change and racial equality. The other was more cautious. While opposed to slavery, he was a patriot intent on preserving the Union.
One man was black, a famous abolitionist, the most photographed man of his time. The other was white, an embattled president who won his election with 38.9% of the vote, the poorest showing by any winning presidential candidate in American History.
By the time Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass met, Douglass had made his disapproval of Lincoln known. Yet his love of country and his rage at the unfair treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army inspired him to go to the White House, without an appointment, to seek an audience with the President.
The only black man in a sea of white was uncertain if he would be forced to wait for days or, worse, be turned away. Imagine his surprise, and the reaction of the other hopefuls, as he was summoned to the President’s office within minutes.
Abraham Lincoln was not afraid to hear from those who disagreed with him. At this first meeting, the two men discovered their commonalities. Both rose from nothing to become leaders. Both were self-educated. Both shared a love of language and oratory.
While they did not solve their differences that day, they connected and took their first steps towards understanding. When Douglass departed, Lincoln said, “never come to Washington without calling on me.”
That was the beginning of a friendship that changed the course of American history.
This story reveals the power of “turning outward”, an approach conceived by Richard C. Harwood, president and founder of The Harwood Institute. It inspired The Patterson Foundation as a method of strengthening efforts.
Harwood says: “It is when we are turned outward that we can discover our shared aspirations and make progress together.”
We celebrate The Patterson Foundation’s first decade of service through an initiative called Honoring & Onward. An original one-act play — Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass, a Walk to Respect — will be enacted in Sarasota and Manatee counties the week of Feb. 17.
In partnership with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, these sold-out performances will be preserved on video for middle and high school students through EdExploreSRQ.com.
Lincoln and Douglass provide inspiration and hope. Their love of country and their willingness to connect built respect and understanding.
They set the example for us who aspire to a better tomorrow.