Life and work of American rights advocate Frederick Douglass celebrated in Scotland

Personal items relating to the life and work of one of the world’s most famous and influential anti-slavery and human rights advocates have gone on show for the first time in Edinburgh.

Frederick Douglass 1853 by John Chester Buttre

Photograph by: Kevin WellsFrederick Douglass 1853

Never before seen items from the Frederick Douglass family collection are on public display at the National Library of Scotland in a special exhibition titled ‘Strike for Freedom: Slavery, Civil War and the Frederick Douglass Family’.

Letters, speeches and photographs from the Walter O. and Linda Evans Collection, are on loan to the National Library for a display to mark the 200th anniversary of the antislavery campaigner’s birth.

Walter O. Evans is a collector and conservator of African American art, history and culture. He personally delivered the material to the Library in August, and returned to Edinburgh for the launch of the new exhibition.

“Douglass loved Scotland and I can think of no better place or time to exhibit this material than in Edinburgh on the 200-year anniversary of his birth,” said Dr Evans.

Frederick Douglass started life as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey when he was born into chattel slavery in Maryland in 1818. In freedom, he chose his new surname after drawing inspiration from a swashbuckling character depicted in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.

A man of great intellect and a talented orator Douglass wrote several autobiographies in which he described his life as a slave in Maryland and his never-ending fight for freedom and better rights for all, regardless of race or gender. He was even the first African American to be nominated for Vice President of the United States.

Full story and more images in Scotland Correspondent magazine

In 1846 Douglass visited Scotland as part of an international tour to promote the abolitionist message and fell in love with the country and its people.

For the first time in his life Douglass said he had found a city where he was treated equally. In a letter to his friend William White, which is held in the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, described Scotland’s capital as one of he most beautiful cities in the world.

“I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it,” he wrote.

“The Monument to Sir Walter Scott, on Princes Street is just one conglomeration of architectural beauties.

“The Calton Hill, Salisbury Craggs and Arthur Seat give the city advantages over any city I have ever visited…”

Charles Remond, Joseph Henry and Lewis Douglass, 1895

Photograph by: Kevin WellsCharles Remond, Joseph Henry and Lewis Douglass, 1895

Douglass also revealed how he felt accepted as an equal by the people of Scotland

“I enjoy every thing here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue—no distinction here. I have found myself in the society of the Combes, the Crowe’s and the Chamber’s, the first people of this city and no one seemed alarmed by my presence.”

During his tour of Scotland Douglass visited Ayr, where he went to see the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns, whose work he greatly admired, as well as trips to Arbroath, Paisley, Perth, Kelso, Glasgow and Dundee where tickets had to be sold for his speeches as they so were popular.

“For the first time, Strike for Freedom tells the story of the revolutionary activism not only of Frederick Douglass – world-famous freedom-fighter, liberator and human rights campaigner – but of his family members,” said Celeste-Marie Bernier, The University of Edinburgh’s Professor of Black Studies and Personal Chair in English Literature.

“Douglass’s wife, Anna Murray, daughters, Rosetta and Annie, and sons, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., and Charles Remond all sacrificed everything they had in working towards a ‘new dawn of freedom’.”

While the many public lives of Frederick Douglass as the representative ‘fugitive slave’, author, orator, philosopher, abolitionist and reformer continue to be told worldwide, this display tells the story of Douglass as a private individual and family man. It features manuscripts, letters, speeches and photographs of Frederick Douglass and his sons, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., and Charles Remond.

The display also shows that Frederick Douglass was not alone in his journey to Scotland, and his work with Scottish antislavery societies. He was joined by a number of African American freedom-fighters who travelled to Scotland in their campaigns to abolish slavery, segregation, and lynch-law, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Amanda Smith, Josiah Henson, Moses Roper, and Ellen and William Craft.

“We are very pleased to host this world-first display of material related to Frederick Douglass, alongside material from our collections. The exhibition sheds new light on Douglass’s time here in Scotland in the mid-19th century, as well as providing insight into the work of the wider Douglass family as they campaigned for social justice in the US,” said Dr John Scally, National Librarian.

The free exhibition, ‘Strike for Freedom: Slavery, Civil War and the Frederick Douglass Family’, runs until Saturday 16 February 2019 at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.

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