Featured Story

Charity’s Column: Sailing to Freedom

There’s a public gathering on Taylor’s Island every Fourth of July, where people come to read the Declaration of Independence out loud.

Taylor’s Island is a Town park in the middle of Coecles Harbor, so getting there requires a boat, but those who show up, can stand under a pear tree with a 360-degree view of bay and sea, and a 248-year view of American history. It’s a great way to contemplate the meaning of freedom.

Who has freedom, and who doesn’t?

We know that many Americans did not have freedom of any kind for much of our history. Are we a free country today? When I am slicing through the water in a boat with the wind at my back, I know that I’m one of the lucky ones who does, but there was a time when freedom for many Americans meant escape. That’s why the sailing ship became a powerful symbol of freedom for enslaved and indentured people.

Frederick Douglass wrote movingly about sailing ships in his 1845 autobiography, describing his life while enslaved on a plantation in Maryland. “Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe.

“Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freeman, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition,” he wrote. “I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully.

“My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience, but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships: You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!”

Around the time that Frederick Douglass watched sailing ships in the Chesapeake Bay and longed for freedom, William and Isaac Pharoah, Montauket children, lived as indentured servants in the home of Samuel Smith Gardiner, the lord of Sylvester Manor.

Unlike Douglass, the brothers left no written account of their lives, but images of sailing ships carved into the walls of the Manor house attic where they lived, speak volumes.

(Credit: Beverlea Walz)

Forty-three etchings, elegant, highly detailed, and likely inspired by ships they saw in Greenport and Sag Harbor cover the walls of the attic and express their dreams of freedom. “WM Phar” was etched into the parts of the attic most densely covered with images of ships.

For one of the brothers, the dream came true. One night in August of 1840, 19-year-old William snuck out of the Manor House attic, found his way to Greenport, and escaped his indenture on a sloop sailing to New London, Conn. He became a whaler.

Perhaps the sight of a ship under sail makes you think of freedom, too, but like the idea of freedom associated with the Fourth of July, it’s more complicated for people whose ancestors were not free. 

The denial of freedom, which is an important part of our past, is why, alongside the Declaration of Independence, it’s appropriate to read one of the most powerful speeches in American history, which Frederick Douglass delivered on July 5, 1852. 

“Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Douglass closed his speech with hope for a better future, “There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. The arm of the Lord is not shortened, and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago.

“No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.”

As Douglass predicted, America has come a long way toward freedom for all since those days, but it’s important, especially when we celebrate July 4, 1776, to remember where we came from.