For the 20th consecutive year, Renaissance House will host a reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July on July 4. 

“This speech points out that we love America despite its terrible things it’s done to certain people,” said Abigail McGrath who organizes the reading each year. “We love America because we hope it gets better.” 

This year’s event will be held at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, beginning at noon on July 4. The event is free and open to the public.

Ms. McGrath is the founder of Renaissance House, a collaborative retreat for creatives of color to be able to work on their craft.  

“This speech points out that we love America despite its terrible things it’s done to certain people,” said organizer Abigail McGrath. — Jeanna Shepard

“When we started Renaissance House around 25 years ago, the people who came through were terrific writers but because they were writers of color and had a different flavor from the majority, other retreats and programs didn’t see it,” she said. 

The connection between the core themes of Renaissance House and the Douglass speech is intertwined, Ms. McGrath said.

“The thing about Renaissance House is that we’re all people of words and emotions who tell stories in a way that give clarity to situations which are not always clear,” she said. “The fact that Mr. Douglass had just been freed by a wealthy Englishman, so that he could come back and leave a speech in America as a runaway slave, he could easily have been arrested and sent back to his master. To give a speech like that means a lot when you know what the consequences could be.” 

The first Vineyard reading was at Dr. Bettye Baker’s house. It was a casual gathering, not a public event, according to Ms. McGrath. Vineyard resident Fred Collins knew the speech by heart and started reciting it. The speech was well received and a few years later, the group decided to read it in a public setting. For many years, Inkwell Beach was home for the reading.  

Audiences for the annual reading have grown over the years, Ms. McGrath said.   

“There are now people bringing their kids to the reading and it’s so satisfying and we’ve overcome so much,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with firecrackers but there is a sense of the ‘bombs bursting in air was all about killing people so this is a nice and a peaceful approach to the country we love so much.”  

For Dr. Jessica Harris, taking part in the annual reading is personal. 

“For several years now, I have requested a particular passage about the intra United States slave trade, because my great great grandmother was sold south from Virginia and we don’t know where she ended up,” Ms. Harris said. “But she would certainly have therefore been a part of that slave trade.”

The Federated Church in Edgartown conducts its own reading of the speech in partnership with the Edgartown Library. This year’s reading takes place on July 5 at the church, beginning at 11 a.m. Coordinator Liz Villard said that the themes of the speech still ring true today

“The reason [we recite this speech] is that we’ve come a long way,” she said. “But we’ve gone forward three steps and gone back two.”  

Progress still needs to be made, according to Ms. McGrath, but she remains optimistic.

“Seeing the horrific mistakes that this country made initially and still came through and still produced wonderful things shows us that we are on the mend, no matter how many terrible things we go through,” she said. “The fabric of the country holds it together so that we can ride through difficult times.”