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Hezekiah Ford Douglass, African-American orator

Hezekiah Ford Douglass was born a slave about 1831, in Rockbridge County, Virginia. In the late 1840s he escaped from Louisiana and came north. He was a great admirer of Frederick Douglass, with whom he often lectured, and took the same spelling of his last name in honor of him. “One contemporary described him as having ‘a physique so noble and a presence so attractive as to charm and interest the listener at once.’” (Roger D. Cunningham)

On February 9th and 10th, 1859, both Frederick Douglass and H. Ford Douglass spoke in Rockford to audiences of four and five hundred. H. Ford Douglass’ theme was “the Essential Wickedness of Slavery.”

In the 1860 census, Douglass and his family were living in Chicago. In the spring of 1862, he left Chicago and took a job as a barber in Belvidere. On August 2, 1862, Douglass spoke “On the emancipation of slaves” at Fuller’s Hall in Belvidere.

On September 4, 1862, H. Ford Douglass was mustered in as a private in Company G, 95th Illinois U. S. Infantry, by Elliott N. Bush in Rockford, Illinois. In 1862-1863, he served ten months with the 95th, much of it at Lake Providence, Louisiana.

Then, on June 7, 1863, Douglass was discharged from the 95th for promotion to Captain, for an independent company attached to the 8th Louisiana Infantry. It was eighteen months before the commission was granted. In December 1863, he was working in a recruitment office of the Illinois Colored Regiment, later the 19th Regiment, U. S. Colored Troops).

On July 4, 1864, he spoke at the Fairgrounds in Rockford. On August 1, 1864, Douglass was the featured speaker at Rockford’s African-American first public celebration of Emancipation Day (which was the freeing of slaves in British West Indies in 1832). Then on August 24, he spoke in New Milford, and on September 22 at Wood’s Hall, on West State Street (northeast corner of State and Main, Rockford).

Finally, after many other lectures,  in December 1864, H. Ford Douglass was appointed to command of the Independent Battery, U.S. Colored Artillery (Light), stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, initially as a 1st Lieutenant, then Captain. The unit was mustered out in July 22, 1865.

On November 11, 1865 H. Ford Douglass died at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, possibly the result of typhoid fever contracted while in Louisiana.

Sources includes: African Americans in early Rockford, 1834-1871, by John L. Molyneaux;
Federal Census: 1860
Roger D. Cunningham, “Douglas’s Battery at Fort Leavenworth,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, Winter 2000-2001, vol. 23, #4)

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