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The Activist Legacy of Frederick Douglass

A new exhibition at the American Writers Museum in Chicago.

Toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglass was approached by a young man who asked how black Americans could continue Douglass’s activism after his death. Douglass responded with one word, repeated three times: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

It was this moment in history — combined with Frederick Douglass’s 200th birthday this year — that inspired Chicago’s own American Writers Museum to dedicate a new exhibit to the former slave turned abolitionist, writer, and orator. Open from now until the end of the year, the Frederick Douglass: Agitator exhibit explores Douglass’s post-Civil War activism through his writings and speeches from 1865 to 1895.

“Perpetual agitation,” as described by curatorial experts at the museum, was the driving force of Douglass’s work after the emancipation of slavery and remains a necessary reminder to present-day activists fighting an administration that refuses to recognize the humanity of all Americans.

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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is a staple in high school English courses across the country, so unless you’re the President of the United States, you’re probably familiar with Douglass’s early life and his escape from slavery. Less publicized, however, is the second half of Douglass’s career, which was marked by his advocacy for the Reconstruction amendments, school desegregation, women’s suffrage, and the repeal of Jim Crow laws. Keidrick Roy, the Harvard Ph.D student who led research and content selection for the AWM exhibit, says that Douglass’s post-emancipation career is something “we all need to pay close attention to, because the conditions of 1865 to 1900 reflect, in a lot of ways, the conditions of our present day.”

To Carey Cranston, the president of the American Writers Museum, Frederick Douglass was a clear choice for the museum. “He really epitomizes, more than a lot of authors, what the power of the written word means.” Born into chattel slavery, Douglass spent twenty years working in plantations and shipyards in Maryland until he escaped bondage in 1838. He learned to read and write at age 10, studying the Bible and spelling books when no one was watching. As Douglass reflects in his first autobiography, literacy was the “pathway from slavery to freedom.”

Nestled in the Roberta Rubin Writer’s Room, Frederick Douglass: Agitator is small but dense with information on Douglass’s postbellum activism. The American Writers Museum is a digitally native institution—having recently celebrated its first anniversary—so it leans on colorful, interactive displays rather than the historical artifacts one would typically find in a museum. Therefore, the exhibit’s displays are less a comprehensive history lesson as they are a celebration of Douglass’s skill as a writer and orator.

After his escape from slavery, Douglass held a long, varied career in public service, with positions ranging from president of a national bank to a US Marshal for the District of Columbia. But even through his rise to power and eventual wealth, he never lost sight of his responsibility to others. In his lifetime, Douglass wrote three autobiographies and thousands of essays and speeches in support of freedom and equality.

Frederick Douglass: Agitator explores each component of his advocacy, from school desegregation to women’s suffrage, through the lens of those written or spoken works, often accompanied by visuals and artifacts on loan from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC. The excerpted works are deconstructed with English teacher-like commentary, flourishes to remind you that you’re in a writing museum and not a history museum.

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While serial killer H. H. Holmes was off on his murder spree, as famously recounted in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, there was another, less cinematic crime happening nearby in 1893. The exhibit dedicates a whole section to Frederick Douglass’s travel to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. He arrived as the representative of Haiti—having previously served as an ambassador to the country—and as the only black man allowed to meaningfully participate in the fair. The museum comments wryly in one of its descriptions that the “white city” designation given to the World’s Fair “must have been bitterly ironic to the African Americans excluded from the year-long event.”

At the expo, Douglass advocated for the respect of Haiti as a sovereign, free nation and brought attention to the continued plight of African Americans in the United States. In partnership with muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells and other activists, Douglass published and distributed a pamphlet called “The Reason Why” that explained why black people were excluded from the fair and, more devastatingly, from full participation in American public life.

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One of the most unique attractions in the exhibit is the touch-screen display where you can view portraits taken of Frederick Douglass. Known to historians as the most photographed man in the 19th century, Douglass posed for 160 known photos in his lifetime, many of which are documented in this display. At a time when African Americans were portrayed in art as either slaves or racist caricatures, Douglass wanted to change the narrative and show what a free black man looked like, acutely aware of how perception can become reality. This extensive research into his portraiture was conducted by Harvard professor John Stauffer, who authored Picturing Frederick Douglass and was involved in the early conversations of this exhibit’s development.

Frederick Douglass: Agitator took nine months for the American Writers Museum to coordinate, from ideation to completion. The hard part was finding the right expert as a consultant, but once Stauffer recommended Keidrick Roy for the team, the exhibit came together in four months—a relatively quick turnaround for the museum. Roy is a Ph.D student at Harvard University studying American literature and history after an 8-year career with the US Air Force. As a research assistant for the exhibit, he spent hundreds of hours poring through the works of Frederick Douglass and curating the content that would appear in the exhibit. Roy was able to turn his research into something tangible by working in partnership with Andrew Anway, founder of the Boston-based museum consultancy Amaze Design and designer of all the museum’s exhibits since the organization’s beginnings more than eight years ago.

In a nod to the activism of today, the museum partnered with students from Young Chicago Authors and ChiArts to bring Frederick Douglass’s words to life. Over recordings broadcasted on a speaker and TV screen, four teenagers-slash-activists read speeches and writings from Douglass. One such quote, from Douglass’s speech on the 24th anniversary of abolition, goes: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

Luis Carranza, the student who read that quote, has been involved in YCA for five years and is a regular participant in the organization’s annual poetry festival, Louder Than a Bomb, which he says has helped him “grow as a person who cares for others.” Carranza was both excited and nervous to be recording for the exhibit, but in the end, he described the final output as beautiful. “Frederick Douglass never gave up despite all the obstacles he encountered to advocate for others, which makes me want to follow those footsteps.”

That Frederick Douglass: Agitator is timely is not lost on the museum’s curation team. Anway believes that in this political climate, Frederick Douglass’s work is more relevant than ever. He added that if you “just take the date away,” Douglass’s writings from the 1800s read like they were intended for a modern audience. Roy agrees, “We can see a clear line between Douglass’s activism and the activism today, with Black Lives Matter and We Charge Genocide here in Chicago, et cetera. There’s a legacy that is really coursing through the veins of the young people today, and I think he’d be proud.”

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When asked what young activists can learn from Douglass, Roy said, “He was aggressive, but it was a controlled aggression that was really wonderful. He studied rhetoric, he read, and he was able to formulate his thoughts in a way he could communicate to the masses from all social strata, which I thought was pretty incredible. That’s one of the things I think we can draw today too from Douglass—of learning to master the rhetorical skill that can allow you to communicate effectively with the right people.”

However, while there was curatorial intent to inspire today’s activists, you won’t find any acknowledgement of recent politics or activist movements within the exhibit, beyond a cursory “[Douglass’s] voice inspires us to use our own voices” in the concluding write-up. Those in charge of the exhibit have expressed the importance of Black Lives Matter and other activist organizations in conversation, but in the exhibit itself, that support is only coded.

The American Writers Museum’s general approach to content has been to only feature dead writers in exhibits and cede coverage of the living to its weekly programming, and this choice is clearly in line with that philosophy. Nonetheless, the omission in this otherwise wonderful exhibit feels like a missed opportunity to demand more of its visitors.

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Earlier this year, fifth and sixth grade students from the local Village Leadership Academy received a crash course in grassroots activism. As part of a year-long course on political engagement, the students chose North Lawndale’s 173-acre Douglas Park as their project. The park was named for Stephen A. Douglas, the former Illinois senator best known for running against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election and bringing the Illinois Central railroad to Chicago. But Douglas was also a slave owner, reaping profits from a plantation in Mississippi that enslaved more than 100 black Americans.

Insulted that a slave owner should represent the neighborhood of North Lawndale, the students argue that the park name should have an “s” added to the end, effectively renaming it after Frederick Douglass, whose presence at the World’s Fair was a watershed moment for Chicago activism. To get the word out, the students have canvassed across the city for signatures and lobbied the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners for formal consideration of the name change.

At publication, more than 3,600 people have signed the cause’s still-active Change.org petition. In the class-created video accompanying the petition, the fifth and sixth graders ask the Park District Board to “choose to be on the right side of history.” One student argues, “Children should play in parks named after role models—those who inspire them to be their best selves or even change the world.” The video ends with the whole class on camera, holding up homemade Frederick Douglass posters and chanting:

“Add an ‘s’ is for the best! Add an ‘s’ is for the best! Add an ‘s,’ we will not rest until the day they add an ‘s’!”

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