Scholars explore personal life of Frederick Douglass

By JERRY WU | March 7, 2019

John Muller, author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C., and Ida Jones, archivist at Morgan State University, presented new research on Frederick Douglass at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Thursday, Feb. 28. The research centered around Douglass’ experiences as a young man in Baltimore and sought to fill in narrative holes regarding his life. 

Douglass is known for his work on abolitionism, social reform and literary works. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and later changed his last name to Douglass at the suggestion of a member of the Underground Railroad who had harbored him during his escape from slavery. 

Community member Derrick Camper noted that these personal details add to Douglass’ story as a historical figure.

“We always get this one thing about him, just like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Camper said. “But there’s more to him than what you read and see on T.V. There’s a person behind him.”

Muller and Jones’ research focused on other aspects of Douglass’ personal life, particularly his formative years in Baltimore. In his presentation, Muller told a story about Douglass’ purchase of a book in Baltimore, an event that may have been a catalyst for his later activism.

“When Douglass is about 12 years old, he buys the book The Columbian Orator. The Columbian Orator was a collection of essays and a very popular schoolbook of its day. There is a dialogue between a master and a slave in The Columbian Orator. Douglass talks extensively of how this book resonated with him and how important it was to his personal history,” he said.

According to Muller, the purchase of this book would not have been possible without the help of a little-known figure named Nathaniel Knight. Briefly mentioned in Douglass’ 1892 autobiography, Knight was a bookseller and prominent community member in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. By selling to books to Douglass, Knight was taking a big risk.

“This guy was breaking the law. Big time breaking the law,” Muller said. “He was a radical bookseller. This is a very radical action... He was supplying the black community with literature and a lot of other things, which he should not have been doing because it was illegal.”

Muller and Jones consider Knight just one of the many forgotten figures in what they call “the lost history of Frederick Douglass.” Jones said that it is necessary to understand the more quotidian aspects of Douglass’ life through his research. According to the researchers, this process has not been easy. 

“African-American history has largely been an oral tradition,” Jones said. “Documentary evidence is lacking.” 

As a result, scholars have had to rely heavily on Douglass’ autobiographies to study his personal life, which, though insightful, do not provide an all-encompassing chronicle. 

However, having pored through many historical documents in their research, Muller and Jones have uncovered new information that adds texture to Douglass’ story.

“I found something in a newspaper from 1917, in which Richard Greener (the first black graduate of Harvard College) recalled a story that Frederick Douglass had told him about why he wore his hair the way he did,” Muller said. “The reason, according to Douglass, was that as a young man, possibly in Baltimore, he saw a picture of Alexander Dumas, the Afro-Franco writer. Douglass was struck by Dumas’ presentation as very unapologetically African, and Douglass adopted that hairstyle for his entire life.”

Jones added that these details and interesting facts bring Douglass’ story to life.

“When you’re able to find the historical records on various people that Douglass interacted with and people who had an influence on Douglass’s life, you get a sense of dimension to Douglass where he’s not only this lofty elder statesman but also a regular person,” Jones said. “He was a teenager. He did run the streets with the Fell’s Point boys. He lived a life similar to our own. It makes him much more relatable.”

Muller clarified that making Douglass more relatable in no way tarnishes his legacy. On the contrary, Muller asserted that by moving past the mythologized version of Douglass, one could begin to examine the tangible impact he had on people of his day. Muller said that Douglass spoke to benefit churches, night schools, scholarship funds and orphanages. For Douglass, it was not only about making grand speeches and writing letters to President Abraham Lincoln but also doing little things to help people in his community.

Jones said that the mythologized version of Douglass remains deeply ingrained in people’s psyche. When asked about what she thought of his legacy, Jones acknowledged this. 

“Douglass became a paragon of what’s possible as an African American,” she said. “But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Mythologized figures are essential to how we think of ourselves as Americans. Figures like Douglass inspire us to stand up for what we know is right, whether it be in the fight against racism, sexism, inequality or any other injustice.”

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