Retired chemist and history buff John Anderson was speaking to a crowd at the Cedar Key Community Center on Saturday night when all of a sudden a rush of cold air and a weird feeling overtook him.
“Did you all feel a draft?” he asked.
He had been talking about the history of the Civil War and how his parents were reenactors and he joined them for more than 17 years attending battles and acting alongside his family.
From that experience at battle reenactments such as the Battle of Olustee, the largest battle in Florida that happened in February 1864, Anderson started to focus on studying and portraying abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
In his role as a historian and reenactor, he visits schools and organizations and brings history to life.
Anderson said he was inspired by his mother’s dedication to including how slaves and free persons of color have helped develop the nation.
“We all know the Civil War is a touchy subject,” Anderson said to the 50 people who attended his talk.
Contrary to his presentation for students at Cedar Key School on Friday, Anderson spoke more directly and bluntly when he told the adults that slavery is a heavy topic about hatred and cruelty.
He took them through the history of slavery from the millions of slaves trafficked in their homeland of Africa to those taken to the Caribbean and eventually those slaves taken to the United States.
And he talked about how territories not established during the Civil War faced the slavery issue.
He then asked the crowd, “What is the Civil War about?
“Depends on who you ask and when you ask them,” Anderson answered.
After he mentioned that Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, that’s when he started to “feel a draft,” and excused himself to get a drink of water.
Anderson did not return to the podium.
Instead, it was Anderson in character as abolitionist Frederick Douglass who came to finish the talk. He was dressed in a long button-down overcoat and boots. His booming voice took over.
As Douglass, Anderson described the workforce in the North and the South and declared, “I have become associated with a group of courageous Americans. We are abolitionists and since the year of 1831 we did begin a political, social and Christian movement to change our nation to have our federal government realize that it is imperative to that it immediately abolish this barbaric institution of slavery.”
He talked of equal rights and protection, the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln, freedom and independence.
He spoke of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as the consequence of the Civil War and said he discovered that “only those slaves that were in the regions of the United States where those states were in current rebellion against the Union would be free, leaving some 800,000 of our brethren still in bondage.”
But the proclamation allowed for Negroes to join forces and become soldiers for the Union, he said. He acknowledged that black soldiers caught in battle would most likely be returned to slavery.
“I am Frederick Douglass, born to a slave woman and born to be none other than a slave,” he said. “And to know that by humanity I was not to be recognized. The Negro slave knows not why he is to be starved, burned and whipped into submission.
“I stand before you an abolitionist and a recruiter of Negro men to serve this Union Army for I firmly believe the black man should serve the Union calls to fight to restore our glorious nation. Render disarmed this Confederate rebellion and thereby abolishing this wretched institution of slavery.”
Douglass referred to a poster he authored advertising for “Men of Color” to join the Union Army.
“Liberty for all men, chains for none,” he said and read his poster, “To arms! To arms! Now, or never.”
The crowd started clapping and rose to a standing ovation after Anderson’s monologue.
Douglass then allowed the crowd to ask him questions. Those questions addressed the Underground Railroad, women suffrage and the women’s rights movement, his time spent living in Europe, and the newspaper he published while living in Rochester, New York.
After the speech, Anderson explained why he takes on the character of Douglass and creates opportunities for students and audiences to interact with the historical character.
“I needed to do more than shout at folks about the evils of slavery,” Anderson said. “I had to come up with a better understanding of our world, our history and our humanity such that no matter who was in the audience, they took the time to hear what I had to say.”
He spoke of how a society makes progress.
“The concept is called civilization,” he said. “It facilitates understanding, and civilization evolves along a timeline. As mankind becomes more enlightened about the natural world and the case of the human condition, what follows is a betterment in attitude toward humanity and justice. With this change in attitude, it’s likely they would change the laws that govern men and humanity. With law changing, hopefully that will influence the behavior of the individual, then a civilization will become more ideal.”
Frederick Douglass, he said, knew that “it might take 100 years for that to happen.”
Director Anna Hodges said the students who were at the Friday event at Cedar Key School were highly engaged in Anderson’s presentation.
“They were enthralled,” Hodges said.
Cedar Key School principal Kathryn Lawrence also praised Anderson’s performance.
“Our students learned so much from Mr. Anderson and were totally engaged,” she said.