Charles Everett Pace is a renowned Chautauquan performer. He travels the nation full time, appearing as historical characters ranging from Malcolm X to Langston Hughes. He’ll be appearing as the abolitionist orator and writer Frederick Douglass at Nevada Humanities Chautauqua 2008 on June 23. For tickets or more information, visit www.nevadahumanities.org. For this interview, Pace stayed in character as Douglass.
The focus of the Nevada Humanities Chautauqua this year is on Abraham Lincoln. Can you tell me about your experiences with Mr. Lincoln?
My experience of Mr. Lincoln went from skeptical to impressed to loving the man—and the idea of Abraham Lincoln. When he first ran for office, in 1860, I felt I could not support him. … He was no abolitionist. The Republican Party, actually, was not an abolitionist party. They wanted to restrict the extension of slavery into the new territories but felt that the Congress and the presidency didn’t have any power to free slaves. So I wondered about Mr. Lincoln. Once the war began, he made it quite clear that his goal was to save the Union. I—and other abolitionists of a radical bent—felt if you did not free the slaves, there would be no Union. And it took Mr. Lincoln a little over two years to come to that same conclusion. Once, however, he became an abolitionist, then this was the man—I knew, the right man—to lead this nation in its time of great peril. I had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Lincoln on two occasions. The first was when Gov. [John] Andrew of Massachusetts got the order to recruit the [54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, two of the first regiments of black soldiers]. Our boys were promised equal pay and that did not happen. And then Jeff Davis said that if he captured any, they would either be sold or executed. My friend Sen. [Samuel C.] Pomeroy set up a meeting, and I met with the president, and we talked about that. And I was impressed with the man—mainly, because I had the opinion that this was one man talking to another man. At no point did I get the idea that this was a white man talking to a black man or that this was an inferior talking to a superior.
Do you feel like you had a role in his conversion to the abolitionist cause?
Well, I was certainly a public voice, but Mr. Lincoln said that he had always hated slavery. But I think it was really a case of the war itself. We all thought the war would be over much quicker than it was, but after the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, it was clear that those traitors of the South were not going to give up. It finally reached a point where it was clear that black troops were not only desired, but needed.
Would you believe that in less than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a black man would be the nominee for president for a major political party?
Well, considering the fact that I was nominated for vice president of a party [The Equal Rights Party, in 1872], I don’t see that as an impossibility. Though, first of all, we got to get the right to vote. But I think when black men do have the right to vote, I would hope that would be possible. I would hope that it would not take 150 years.
What makes you a great orator?
I would say my own experience. I have studied oration going all the way back. When I was child, in Baltimore, I came upon a book by a man called Caleb Bingham called The Columbian Orator, and I read that book from cover to cover, as did most people who studied the art of oration. I heard great orators, people like Samuel Ringgold Ward, Wendell Phillips and Daniel Webster. And I have a propensity for it. It was all those things. But mainly, I was speaking the truth. And I try to speak the truth, as I know it. Technique is one thing, but if you’re speaking out of the depth of your heart, and you’re convinced that what you are saying is right, people will listen.