The fame and esteem of orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was so pervasive during his life, he became the most photographed individual in the 19th century.
“He sat for photographers more than Lincoln or Grant,” Harvard University professor and historian John Stauffer said at an event at the Reginald Lewis Museum marking the 200th anniversary of Douglass’ birth.
More than 500 people attended a series of celebratory events at the East Pratt Street institution to hear historians discuss the life of the man born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who spent his youth in Fells Point. Douglass escaped slavery and later resided in Rochester, N.Y. and in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C. He became a national leader in the abolitionist movement and became known for his soaring oratory and persuasive and insightful essays against slavery.
Professor Stauffer, a professor of English and of African and African-American studies, described Douglass as the “pre-eminent self-made man in American history who starts life as a slave and becomes a household name in the late 1840s…. As a public speaker, he was a rock star. People would travel hundreds of miles to hear him.”
Stauffer placed Douglass’ birth and origins in perspective. He said that if Douglass had a privilege, it was that he was born in Maryland and not in the deep South that he characterized as totalitarian and governed by white supremacists.
He quoted Douglass, “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”
The historian said Douglass learned to read while living as a slave in the Hugh Auld household in Fells Point and took cookies from his owners’ kitchen to get other neighborhood children to help him with his spelling and vocabulary. “He would spell words in chalk on the streets of Baltimore,” said Stauffer, who also described Baltimore “as perhaps the leading black metropolis of the 1830s.”
Douglass also became interested in oratory while in Baltimore and memorized pages from the King James Bible to help improve his speaking skills. He also had a copy of The Columbian Orator, a 1797 publication widely studied by students of elocution and public speaking.
Douglass married a Denton woman, Anna Murray, a free black woman who helped him financially to flee slavery and get to New Bedford, Mass. where he became an in-demand speaker.
“He was the first former slave to speak for the American Abolitionist Society,” said Stauffer, who said his audiences received Douglass as a “patriot of the human race.” One woman, he said, wrote of Douglass oratory: “He was majestic in his wrath.”
He described Douglass as a savvy businessman who was “immensely shrewd as an innovator and critic,” and became a generous philanthropist in his later years in Anacostia.
“He realized the power of photography, too,” said Stauffer, who noted that Americans of the 1850s believed that photographs did not lie. Photographs helped spread Douglass’ renown and make him a household name.
Stauffer, author of a 2015 book, “Picturing Frederick Douglass,” identified Douglass seated in a place of honor in a photograph outside the U.S. Capitol as Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in March 1865. As he projected an enlarged copy of the photo on a screen at the museum, he pointed out another figure in a gallery overlooking the president. Stauffer identified that figure as Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Stauffer ended his remarks by telling a story of a young man who sought Douglass’ advice on a career choice. He replied in three words, “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.”
As part of the museum celebration, living historian Michael Crutcher, dressed as Douglass, did re-enactments of his speeches throughout the afternoon to a standing-room-only crowd.
Lawrence Jackson, a Johns Hopkins University professor, also spoke and traced Douglass’ early life at Wye House Plantation near Easton in Talbot County, as well as the time he spent in Baltimore as a slave and young companion to Thomas Auld.
He described numerous African-Americans who were free people of color and lived in homes built in alleyways behind the main residences along Broadway, Ann, Caroline and Wolfe streets.
“The alleys were the boulevards of black life,” said Lawrence. “Blacks lived basically out of sight. And it was in those spots where you had black worship and where you would ultimately have black revolt.”