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New Douglass Museum in the Works

By Edward Epstein

April 10, 2023

Washington, D.C.

A new museum about Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, author and orator linked closely in the public's mind to Abraham Lincoln, is planned for Rochester, New York, Douglass' adopted hometown and burial place.

The project in downtown Rochester, an upstate New York city of 210,000 on the shore of Lake Ontario, is planned by the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a non-profit organization that includes Douglass descendants. He had five children, including sons who served as federal soldiers in the Civil War.

The group is raising money to buy a building to house the museum and its offices and envisions opening the museum in three or four years. Douglass, born on a Maryland plantation in 1818, escaped from slavery and through self-education became a journalist, the author of several autobiographical works, a fiery orator and a tireless worker for abolitionism. He was probably the best-known African-American of his time

Douglass, who died in 1895, had an up-and-down relationship with the 16th president, who until well into his presidency was anti-slavery but not an abolitionist. The two men met three times. The first time came in 1863, after Lincoln allowed freed male slaves to join the U.S. Army in the fight against the Confederate rebels. Those black men, who numbered 179,000 in the Army and 19,000 in the Navy, were paid less than their white counterparts.

Douglass came to the White House, without an invitation, to petition the president for equal pay for all members of the military. Much to Douglass' irritation, Lincoln demurred.

For their second meeting, Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House in the summer of 1864 when the president, fearing he would lose that November's presidential election because of Union battlefield failures, tried to enlist Douglass to organize African-American "scouts" for the dangerous work of heading into Confederate territory to encourage slaves to head north to Union territory as quickly as possible so they would be in free territory before his defeat.

But Lincoln's notion became unnecessary later than summer when Atlanta fell to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's forces and the key port of Mobile, Alabama, was taken by Adm. David Farragut, twin victories that foretold Lincoln's win that November.

Their third meeting came on March 4, 1863, when Lincoln greeted Douglass at a White House reception to mark his second inauguration as president.

During the war Douglass had extolled Lincoln, calling him "emphatically the black man's president, the first to any respect for their rights as men."

But by 1876, when he spoke in Washington at the dedication of what was then called the Freedmen's Monument in Lincoln Park, Douglass took a harsher tone. "Lincoln was pre-eminently the white's man president."

The monument, now called the Emancipation Memorial, is the subject of an ongoing controversy, with critics calling for its removal because they say the image of Lincoln standing over a kneeling slave looking up at him, is degrading. Others say the statue shows the slave rising, bursting free from his shackles.

When the museum opens, it will join a host of sites dedicated to Douglass and celebrating his life. He is buried in Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery, where Susan B. Anthony also rests. There is a Douglass statue in Franklin Park, not far from his one-time home. The self-guided Douglass walking tour includes 13 life-sized replicas of the Franklin Park statue.

In Susan B. Anthony Square, a sculpture shows her and Douglass sharing tea. The RMSC Museum & Science Center has exhibits about Douglass, along with an exhibit on Rochester's role on the Underground Railroar, a covert group that Douglass aided.

Among other sites dedicated to him, Washington is home to Douglass's home and estate, now operated by the National Park Service. Douglass bought the property in 1877 and lived there until his death. The home is temporarily closed for renovations.


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