If you’ve ever visited the New-York Historical Society, you’ve probably enjoyed saying hello to (or even taking a selfie with!) our Frederick Douglass statue outside our 77th Street entrance. While we’re thrilled to celebrate his work every day as he welcomes visitors to the Museum, we’re especially excited this year to celebrate his life and legacy in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth through the special installation Activist for Equality: Frederick Douglass at 200, as well as through programs and events presented by our Frederick Douglass Council.
In this momentous year, last week we were thrilled to welcome someone very special to the Museum: Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a fourth generation descendant of Frederick Douglass, as well as the great, great grandson of Booker T. Washington. Morris carries an unprecedented lineage and admirably continues Douglass’s legacy of advocacy today as the founder and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI), which works to eradicate all forms of modern slavery. This year, Morris and FDFI are distributing one million copies of a special bicentennial edition of Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, to young people across the country.
At a recent event kicking off Black History Month, I was thrilled to hear Morris speak, reminding us of Douglass’s words: “I prayed for 20 years but my prayers weren’t answered until I prayed with my legs.” Morris also spoke of Douglass’s extreme priority on education, even carrying “bread in his pockets and would trade this bread for reading lessons…He was so hungry for history and literacy—he would rather go hungry in order to feed his mind.”
Inspired by Morris’ words, we were eager to celebrate this historic year with him. Joining Morris on the visit were two good friends of the Museum: Jane Tillman Irving, the first black reporter on WCBS and a member of the Frederick Douglass Council; and Dolores Mercedes Franklin, DMD, one of the founding members of our Frederick Douglass Council and the first black female to graduate from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Franklin has researched her deep family roots in American history, dating all the way back to Jamestown. What a pleasure to have them both with us!
The first stop of their visit to the Museum was the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, housed at New-York Historical, to see original letters written by Frederick Douglass. Sandra Trenholm, curator and director of the Gilder Lehrman collection, showed us several documents that moved the group to tears. Together, we looked at an original version of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and we were each affected deeply in different ways. Then we saw the deed manuscript issued by Hugh Auld after he purchased “Frederick Bailey” for $711.66. The document memorializes the transaction between Hugh Auld to Walter Lowrie, a New York abolitionist, in the sale of Douglass so that he could then be freed. Frederick Douglass was released from the bonds of slavery on December 5, 1846. Just under a decade later, he wrote to his former slave owner, Hugh Auld, asking for details about his own life while living as Auld’s slave. We saw this letter, in which Douglass reflects upon his affection for the Auld family: “I love you, but I hate slavery.”
Another special item in this collection was a letter written in 1882 by Frederick Douglass to a young girl named Lina, thanking her for a potholder she had crafted for him that read, “Any holder but a Slave holder.” Also in this treasure trove was a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt on May 13, 1944, to a woman named Miss Addie Frizielle, who didn’t agree with Roosevelt’s emphatic support of civil rights. Roosevelt writes about the “four basic rights which I believe every citizen in a democracy must enjoy,” which are “the right for equal education, the right to work for equal pay according to ability, the right to justice under the law, the right to participate in the making of the laws by use of the ballot.”
Like Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass worked in support of the rights of others around him. He persevered for human equality, which led him to advocate not only for black citizenship but also for women’s suffrage when he attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. But Douglass was also lifted up by the women in his own life, particularly his wife of 44 years, Anna Murray—a laundress who raised their five children, managed all of her husband’s finances, and even used some of her own savings to support his travelling the country to deliver speeches that we now read about in history books. In fact, to our great honor, Morris’s mother loaned an original image of Anna Murray for our exhibition Saving Washington, on view last year in our Center for Women’s History, about women of the early American republic and the legacies they left for decades and centuries to follow. On our final stop in the Museum, Valerie Paley—New-York Historical’s vice president, chief historian, and director of the Center for Women’s History—led us through our fourth floor to look at objects related to Douglass’s life in our permanent collection, reminding us all how recent so many of the injustices against Frederick Douglass and his peers occurred.
For me, the stories of Frederick Douglass and meeting Kenneth Morris have deeply personal meaning. As a first generation American myself whose family emigrated from Haiti, I am in awe of Douglass’s story and moved by so many of his achievements—like the fact that despite having no formal diplomatic training, Douglass was appointed minister resident and consul general to Haiti in 1889. He was among the highest that an African American man had been appointed in the 19th century. Living in Harlem, my commute begins with another statue of him on 110th Street and his namesake Frederick Douglass Boulevard—only to end with him greeting me again on the other side of my journey.
And that’s where Kenneth Morris’s visit to the Museum takes us as well: As we leave the New-York Historical Society after an incredible tour, Morris finally has an opportunity to study the statue of Frederick Douglass outside, the one we have the honor to pass every day. What always strikes me about this statue is the strength of his stance, which I can only imagine developed as he broke down walls of injustice that must have seemed insurmountable to those of his era. I notice his bold mane of hair and piercing gaze looking out toward Central Park. I often wonder what gave him the courage to accomplish all that he did while fighting against legally sanctioned slavery.
In a poignant moment, we notice together that Mr. Morris and Mr. Douglass bear a striking resemblance—and we’re both reminded that his legacy continues every day, at the statue, at the Museum, and in the incredible work of Kenneth Morris himself who fights against slavery every day, working proudly, and fiercely, in the name of his ancestors.
—Melissa Fenton, Director of Individual Giving and manager of the Frederick Douglass Council and the Frederick Douglass Council Young Leaders
Tomorrow on February 13, we’re thrilled to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth through a special bicentennial event featuring historian David Blight and author and op-ed columnist Brent Staples, who engage in scholarly conversation about Frederick Douglass’s life, followed by a gospel performance by Just Friends. Trustee Neal Moszkowski has loaned his personal collection of original letters from Frederick Douglass to our Library that will be on display during the event.
In September 2018, join us for our exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, which further illuminates how slavery deeply divided our country and that gains of basic rights were hard fought and slow to develop during Reconstruction. The exhibit also heralds the communities and organizations located around 135th Street that played a significant role in these advances in New York City.
The Frederick Douglass Council is an affinity and networking group that highlights the important role that African Americans have played in American and New York history. Our goal is to deepen discussion and engagement on a variety of topics through public programs, exhibition viewings, and exclusive events throughout the year. The FDC was founded by Jacqueline Adams. Frederick Douglass Council Young Leaders meet several times a year to discuss issues of importance to the African American community, with a focus on issues related to education, leadership, culture, history, and professional achievement. For more information and to join as a member or a corporate sponsor, contact Melissa Fenton at (646) 293-9906 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can hear our Frederick Douglass statue talk! Learn more about the Talking Statues program.