On the fifth anniversary of the Federated Church’s dedication as part of The African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, 14 Island residents gathered in the space to recite Frederick Douglass’s speech What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

The speech — a poignant rebuke of slavery and hypocrisy in America — was first delivered to the Rochester Sewing and Anti-Slavery Society in July of 1852, and it has been recited at the Federated Church around the Fourth of July most years since 2014.

Mr. Douglass spoke of a holiday that he could not celebrate because it was clouded by pain inflicted by slaveholders and those who did not speak out against slavery. The speech may be more than 170 years old but it is relevant now, said Toni Kauffman, president of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP and one of the readers on Monday.

“As we look at what is going on today, we can say that he did a timeless piece. And we need to do it each year to be reminded,” Ms. Kauffman said.

George Davis at the podium. — Maria Thibodeau

The Federated Church was dedicated as part of the African-American Heritage Trail on July 3, 2018, honoring the life of Frederick Douglass, who delivered a different speech about the Unity of Man at the church in November 1857. The Vineyard Gazette reported on that speech and said he was a “fluent and powerful speaker, and commands uninterrupted attention.”

The 2018 dedication took place immediately following the annual recitation of the Fourth of July speech, which has been read in the church each year since 2014, except for during the pandemic.

Elizabeth St. John Villard said she has been organizing the event since the pandemic, when she took over after the death of the original organizer Mary Jane Carpenter.

"The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,’ has not yet spent its force,” Ms. Villard read as she neared the last lines of the speech. “No abuse, no outrage, whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all pervading light.”

Ms. Villard said she believes each year is an important opportunity to look back at the speech’s message.

Toni Kauffman, president of the NAACP of Martha's Vineyard. — Maria Thibodeau

“Everybody who is involved with it or is here says this is so timely,” Ms. Villard said. “You can take out the word slavery and put in women’s rights, or you take that out and you put in LGBTQ rights.”

The audience was captivated, especially when speakers such as former Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter, a member of the church and a former deacon, took the podium to deliver the words with passion and conviction.

At the conclusion of the over 90-minute speech, the audience rose for a standing ovation.

Mr. Carter said he has been a reader for about seven years and said it continues to resonate with listeners each year.

“You can tell by their facial expressions that it enlightens them,” he said.

The event has been a joint effort by The Federated Church of Martha’s Vineyard and the Friends of the Edgartown Free Public Library since 2014. This year, the Rotary Club of Martha’s Vineyard also gave support.

Another reading is scheduled for Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs, hosted by Renaissance House.