Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the preeminent African American voice of the nineteenth century, is remembered as one of the nation’s greatest orators, writers, and picture makers. Born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was the son of Harriet Bailey, an enslaved woman, and an unknown white father. He escaped bondage in 1838 and changed his surname to Douglass.
Over six decades, Douglass published three autobiographies, hundreds of essays, and a novella; delivered thousands of speeches; and edited the longest-running Black newspaper in the nineteenth century, The North Star (later Frederick Douglass’ Paper and Douglass’ Monthly). During the Civil War, he befriended and advised President Abraham Lincoln and met every subsequent president through Grover Cleveland. He was also the first African American to receive a federal appointment requiring Senate approval (U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia).
Douglass became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century and remains a public face of the nation. As an art critic, he wrote extensively on portrait photography and understood its power. He explained how this “true art” (as opposed to pernicious caricatures) captured the essential humanity of each subject. True art was an engine of social change, he argued, and true artists were activists: “They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction."
Organized into seven sections, this exhibition highlights the long arc and significance of Frederick Douglass’s life: from slave and fugitive to internationally acclaimed abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and statesman after the Civil War. We come to recognize his influences in the Civil War and postwar eras; and the significance of his afterlife, in which his portraits and writings continue to inspire people to seek “all rights for all,” one of his mottos. The range of objects shown here reflects Douglass’s openness to new forms of media and technology to advance the cause of human rights.
—John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of
English and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University