Left Justified: A black abolitionist in Belvidere

H. Ford Douglas raised money and men for the 95th Illinois Regiment just as the American Civil War started. His voice raised the hearts and ideals of northwest Illinoisians to fight against slavery and for the Union. He himself enlisted, not as an officer, which he could have (thus was the love of the troops for him), but as a lowly private, so he could be one of the many to fight in the glorious crusade of 1861.

H. Douglas was an abolitionist, someone who spoke and acted against slavery. Douglas (perhaps using a pseudonym to protect his true identity as an escaped slave) spoke at area rallies against slavery and the issues of the time, and encouraged recruits for the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War.

Mr. Douglas , who was also of African descent, overcame the racism of his time to become a hero and leader of all men. He is featured in the book African Amercans in Early Rockford written by local historian and former librarian John Molyneaux. You may pick up a copy at the main library bookshop for $10.

I not only enjoyed the book, but followed up with a trip to the African-American Civil War Museum and Memorial in Washington, D.C. I was in the city to lobby for peace in the Middle East (yes, I know, but ya gotta try) and found myself at “U Street & 14th,” where the Metro Station practically dumped me in front of the Memorial: a beautiful bronze life-size presentation of six black soldiers, complete with rifles. I then went into this little museum (more like a closet when compared with the Smithsonian), where I met assistant director Hari Jones.

I asked Mr. Jones about this tale of a Belvidere, Ill. freedman who not only raised recruits, but enlisted in a white Army unit himself. “Oh, yes, Hezekiah Ford Douglas,” was his response. I was floored! “There were over 1,000 instances of men of African descent enlisting and being accepted into the Union Army before the formation of the Black Regiments,” he said. “Some were made officers!”

After a few clicks on his computer, Mr. Jones brought up Douglas’s record (but now spelt Douglass), and it showed that H. Ford Douglass had enlisted for three years into Company G, 95th Ill. Infantry, from his hometown of Belvidere Ill. at age 30, leaving a wife. One year later, he was promoted to Captain in an “independent company” attached to the 8th Louisiana Lt Artillery. He was discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., July 1865.

The computer is a marvelous device for doing research, and I soon found that Mr. Douglass was well known throughout the Midwest, preaching and speaking for the abolition of the slave trade (thus the name “abolitionists”).

Here is an account of Mr. Douglass’ visit to Neenah, Wis.:

“Mr. Douglass is truly an eloquent man. He knows and feels the great wrongs and burdens heaped upon him and his captive race by enlightened Christian Liberally boasting America. He knows and feels those enabled rights conferred upon him by his creator and, as he pleads for them from the bottom of his injured and crushed heart, his eyes kindle into new brightness from the irresistible fire within him, and his countenance mirrors forth the star-like thoughts which, touched with the living coal of eloquence, beamed upon his lips. Listening to him one would hardly believe that (some would consider him) an animal—a piece of live stock—that was uttering the language.” Conservator [Neenah-Menasha], Dec. 17, 1857

They wrote rather flowery back then. It was amazing to hear that a local man from the 1850s and ’60s made such a difference fighting an evil and almost insurmountable system as slavery (the worst aspects of capitalism and racism put together). It is even more amazing, since the local man, H. Ford Douglass, was of African descent. It truly gives me hope.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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