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Heroes past and their lessons for BLM movement

As has been reported in The Day, New London County Historian Tom Schuch recently uncovered evidence that Frederick Douglass spoke in the City of New London for the abolition of slavery in 1848.

Douglass, then a young activist and orator, stirred controversy and often scorn for his views that were at the time considered both too radical and indeed too dangerous. Similar charges are often levied at today’s Black Lives Matter activists. Indeed, these same charges were made a half-century ago against the late Congressman John Lewis whenever he was off getting himself in some “good trouble.”

Great credit is due to historians, such as Schuch, and to local organizations, such as New London Landmarks, who have done so much to unearth and preserve New London’s history.

History, left to its own devices, sadly, often forgets even the famous of their day. With the passing of time all travails, triumphs and tragedies of history’s largest figures are slowly obscured and forgotten.

Such was the case with Mr. Douglass’s New London lectures, and so too is the case regarding the record of a former Mayor of New London, Augustus Brandegee.

Augustus Brandegee was a lawyer and a magistrate judge (in a district court then called the Police Court) in the late 1850s. Holding court at what we now call the Custom House Museum, Brandegee’s responsibilities included ruling on cases involving “runaway” slaves.

According to the federal fugitive slave act, in force at the time, these escaped slaves were to be returned to their owners. Rather than enforce the act, Brandegee took a different course. Brandegee asked the escaped slaves a simple question; “do you want to be a slave, or do you want to be free?” With little surprise, almost all answered that they wanted to be free and Brandegee so declared them to be!

It could be said that Augustus Brandegee was the first New London leader to declare ours a “sanctuary city” in full violation of federal law.

Brandegee’s contribution to the abolition of slavery hardly ended there, for, in 1862, he was elected to two terms in the United States House of Representatives. It was in that chamber that Brandegee argued and lobbied for the abolition of slavery. These efforts culminated in Brandegee’s vote in January of 1865 for the 13th Amendment that finally abolished slavery. The amendment passed by a two-vote margin.

Brandegee, it can fairly be said, was a key leader in the effort to end slavery in America, and how does history remember him? In the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” Brandegee’s name is changed, and even worse, he is seen as voting “No” on the amendment.

Hollywood decided to change his name and got wrong the most important thing he ever did.

So what lesson might Augustus Brandegee have for our public servants today, politicians often concerned with their own popularity and legacy, who grapple now with issues of race and inequality in our society?

I believe Mayor Brandegee would tell these politicians to forget about popularity and legacy. He would know, all too well, that history gets it wrong anyway. I believe Brandegee would tell today’s public servants to just do what is right, so that years after they are forgotten, progress will have been made, and that alone is all that matters.

Brandegee’s thoughts and opinions on today’s controversies may need to be surmised from beyond the grave, but with that other nearly forgotten New London guest orator, Frederick Douglass, what he might say to the BLM activists in New London today can actually be quoted directly.

In 1895, weeks before his death, Douglass was asked what a young African American could do to further the cause of justice and equality in America.

Douglass responded that, to be effective, there were three things young activists should do: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

Douglass, and Brandegee, may well have understood that history offers a legacy to no one, but they also understood that the story of the advancement of humankind across the pages of history does not write itself.

Daryl Justin Finizio, a lawyer, lives in New London. He is a former mayor of that city. Watch a video of Finizio discuss Augustus Brandgee's legacy here.

 

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