Fred­er­ick Dou­glass

At a Black His­tory Month event re­cently, Pres­i­dent Trump seemed to sug­gest that Fred­er­ick Dou­glass was still alive: He’s “done an amaz­ing job and is get­ting rec­og­nized more and more,” Trump said. If he was re­fer­ring to our aware­ness of Dou­glass’s im­por­tan

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and John Stauf­fer hlg@fas.har­ stauf­fer@fas.har­

MYTH NO. 1 Fred­er­ick Dou­glass is ‘be­ing rec­og­nized more and more.’

In fact, Dou­glass was more fa­mous in the 19th cen­tury than he is to­day. His first two au­to­bi­ogra­phies, “Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass” (1845) and “My Bondage and My Free­dom” (1855), were best­sellers. In ad­di­tion, he was one of the na­tion’s great­est or­a­tors, a widely read jour­nal­ist and the most-pho­tographed Amer­i­can of the 19th cen­tury. He was truly among the most fa­mous Amer­i­cans of his time.

In the 1850s, he was of­ten com­pared in stature to Stephen Dou­glas, the Demo­cratic leader who sup­ported slav­ery, de­feated Lin­coln in the 1858 U.S. Se­nate race in Illi­nois and twice ran for pres­i­dent. Sev­eral jour­nal­ists wanted “to have the black Dou­glass on the stump against the white Dou­glas.” (The white Dou­glas, a vir­u­lent racist, hated the com­par­i­son.) Dou­glass was more fa­mous than Lin­coln un­til the 1860 pres­i­den­tial race; jour­nal­ists some­times mis­spelled the can­di­date’s name as “Abram.”

When Dou­glass died in 1895, thou­sands of trib­utes from the United States and abroad honored him. Col­lected in a 350-page closely printed book, they high­light his stature. The Wash­ing­ton Post be­gan its trib­ute by say­ing, “Fred­er­ick Dou­glass was one of the great men of the cen­tury.” And the Chicago Tri­bune de­clared: “No man, black or white, has been bet­ter known for nearly half a cen­tury in this coun­try, than Fred­er­ick Dou­glass.”

MYTH NO. 2 Dou­glass, a Repub­li­can, would fit in with to­day’s GOP.

Con­tem­po­rary Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing the Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Repub­li­cans and the Ore­gon Repub­li­can Party, proudly re­mind us of Dou­glass’s GOP mem­ber­ship. “The Repub­li­can Party is the ship and all else is the sea around us,” Dou­glass said af­ter the Civil War.

But his pol­i­tics hardly re­sem­bled those of mod­ern Repub­li­cans (just as Democrats of the time weren’t like to­day’s Democrats). In 1855, Dou­glass was a self-pro­fessed rad­i­cal as a found­ing mem­ber of the Rad­i­cal Abo­li­tion Party, which wanted to up­end the sta­tus quo in the most dra­matic way: im­me­di­ate and uni­ver­sal eman­ci­pa­tion; full suf­frage for all Amer­i­cans, re­gard­less of sex or skin color; the redis­tri­bu­tion of land so that no one would be rich and no one poor; and vi­o­lent in­ter­ven­tions against slav­ery. Other founders in­cluded two of Dou­glass’s close friends: the mil­i­tant abo­li­tion­ist John Brown and the na­tion’s first university-ed­u­cated black physi­cian, James McCune Smith.

Dur­ing the Civil War, Dou­glass be­came a Repub­li­can and re­mained a de­voted mem­ber of the party for the rest of his life. At the time, the GOP — the party of Lin­coln and Charles Sum­ner — con­sis­tently re­ceived enor­mous sup­port from black vot­ers and ad­vo­cated a strong cen­tral gov­ern­ment and cer­tain en­ti­tle­ments for the un­der­priv­i­leged. In other words, it bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to to­day’s Repub­li­can Party.

MYTH NO. 3 Dou­glass es­caped from slav­ery on foot.

Images ac­com­pa­ny­ing de­scrip­tions of Dou­glass’s flight from slav­ery (even pe­riod lith­o­graphs) of­ten de­pict him sneak­ing away through the wilder­ness or evad­ing slave­catch­ers. Many sources say sim­ply that Dou­glass “ran away,” leav­ing read­ers to imag­ine him on foot, fol­low­ing the North Star to free­dom, out­rac­ing blood­hounds, and avoid­ing snakes and slave-catch­ers in the swamps.

It’s a dra­matic no­tion, but Dou­glass’s es­cape was more pro­saic, mir­ror­ing many self-eman­ci­pa­tions from the pe­riod that de­pended more on lo­gis­tics and less on ro­mance. Dressed in a sailor’s suit (a red shirt, black cra­vat and tar­pau­lin hat) and trav­el­ing un­der an as­sumed iden­tity, Dou­glass boarded a train in Bal­ti­more on Sept. 3, 1838. Then he took a steam­boat from Wilmington, Del., to Philadel­phia. Fi­nally, he trav­eled via a night train to New York.

As soon as Dou­glass reached safety in New York, he wrote his fi­ancee, Anna Mur­ray, and asked her to join him at once. They were mar­ried Sept. 15 at the home of David Rug­gles, a free black jour­nal­ist, in a cer­e­mony presided over by a fa­mous black abo­li­tion­ist, the Rev. James Pennington, a newly or­dained min­is­ter and, like Dou­glass, a fugi­tive from Mary­land. On Rug­gles’s ad­vice, they moved to New Bed­ford, Mass., then the na­tion’s whal­ing cap­i­tal, where Dou­glass be­gan work as a free man.

MYTH NO. 4 Dou­glass was an Amer­i­can pa­triot.

Dou­glass wanted blacks to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and af­ter Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln al­lowed them to serve, Dou­glass be­came the pres­i­dent’s loyal sup­porter and friend. Fol­low­ing the war, Dou­glass was the first African Amer­i­can to re­ceive a fed­eral ap­point­ment that re­quired Se­nate ap­proval and was an of­fi­cial emis­sary to Haiti. It’s no won­der that the Col­ored Repub­li­can As­so­ci­a­tion of New York called Dou­glass “a pa­triot and a hero” upon his death in 1895 or that he is of­ten listed in col­lec­tions of Amer­i­can pa­tri­ots: A mono­graph from the 1990s, for in­stance, was called “Fred­er­ick Dou­glass: Pa­triot and Ac­tivist.”

Yet Dou­glass never de­fined him­self as an Amer­i­can pa­triot — in­deed, he was highly crit­i­cal of the United States. In 1845, as a fugi­tive slave, he fled to the British Isles for two years, al­most set­tling per­ma­nently in Eng­land. For the first time in his life, he said, he ex­pe­ri­enced “an ab­sence, a per­fect ab­sence, of ev­ery­thing like that dis­gust­ing hate with which we are pur­sued” in Amer­ica. Only a sense of duty to his wife and his fel­low African Amer­i­cans, and a de­sire to fight the scourge of racism and slav­ery, per­suaded him to come back. “I have no love for Amer­ica, as such,” he an­nounced upon his re­turn. “I have no pa­tri­o­tism. I have no coun­try.”

Six­teen years later, on the eve of the Civil War, he planned a visit to Haiti to en­ter­tain per­ma­nent em­i­gra­tion to the black re­pub­lic. “The North has never been able to stand against the power and pur­poses of the South,” he con­cluded. If Haiti met his ex­pec­ta­tions as a “light of glo­ri­ous prom­ise,” then he would re­main in that coun­try and call it home.

MYTH NO. 5 Dou­glass was a pi­ous Chris­tian.

Tra­di­tional Chris­tian min­istries such as the Col­son Cen­ter claim that “Dou­glass was a com­mit­ted Chris­tian.” Like­wise, Chris­tian pub­lish­ing house Con­cor­dia in­cludes Dou­glass in its “Heroes of the Faith” book series. And Dou­glass re­ferred of­ten to Chris­tian­ity in his speeches and writ­ing.

But his views on the re­li­gion were less than con­ven­tional. While a prac­tic­ing mem­ber of the African Methodist Epis­co­pal Zion Church for most of his adult life, Dou­glass used the Bi­ble to in­ter­pret the North’s role in the Civil War al­le­gor­i­cally, with “Michael and his an­gels” bat­tling “the in­fer­nal host of bad pas­sions” in our coun­try’s ver­sion of the apoc­a­lypse. He fre­quently ex­pressed his dis­gust at the fact that slave­own­ers cited scrip­ture to ar­gue that slav­ery was di­vinely or­dained and that the Lord de­manded the docil­ity of the en­slaved.

In his fi­nal years, Dou­glass be­came a Uni­tar­ian, a Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tion that does not rec­og­nize Je­sus as divine and re­jects many other tra­di­tional doc­trines. His home con­tained ar­ti­facts and writ­ings from sev­eral world re­li­gions, as well as busts of his fa­vorite philoso­phers, Lud­wig Feuer­bach and David Friedrich Strauss, both of whom viewed Je­sus as a moral per­son but not the son of God.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher university pro­fes­sor at Har­vard, co-ed­i­tor of “The Portable Fred­er­ick Dou­glass” and host of the PBS series “Africa’s Great Civ­i­liza­tions.” John Stauf­fer is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and African and African Amer­i­can stud­ies at Har­vard and the au­thor or ed­i­tor of six books on Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, in­clud­ing “Gi­ants” and “Pic­tur­ing Fred­er­ick Dou­glass.”


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