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One Life: Frederick Douglass at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

By David J. Kent

Washington, D.C.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

One of the benefits of living in the Washington, DC area is the vast number of historical resources and opportunities here. The Smithsonian Institution museums regularly feature exhibits of interest to Lincoln Group of DC members. The most recent is "One Life: Frederick Douglass," now running at the Portrait Gallery, a short walk from Ford's Theatre.

Frederick Douglass was one of the most recognizable antislavery activists in our nation's history. The exhibit takes visitors through his life, using paintings, photographs, and artifacts to highlight the importance of his life to American freedom. I visited the exhibit recently and was struck by the magnificent curation of John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard University, along with consulting curator Ann Shumard, the National Portrait Gallery's senior curator of photographs.

One of the first artifacts visitors see on display is the Aaron Anthony Ledger, that is, the book recording all the enslaved people on the Edward Lloyd Wye plantation in Talbot County, Maryland (on the Eastern Shore). Anthony managed the plantation and the more than five hundred enslaved people on ten thousand acres. Fifth from the bottom on the left-hand page is "Frederick Augustus, son of Harriet, Feby 1818." After his escape from slavery and arrival in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick changed his last name first to Johnson and then to Douglass. He never knew who his father was, but suspected either Anthony or Anthony's son-in-law, Thomas Auld. Douglass had always estimated his birth year as 1817, but the discovery of the ledger in 1980 made it clear it was February 1818.

Photographs in the exhibit trace his interactions with others, including his wife Anna Murray Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and white abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Gerrit Smith. Of particular interest to Lincoln Group of DC members is a letter Douglass wrote to Abraham Lincoln after their second meeting in August 1864 (see above). Lincoln asked Douglass to organize a band of Black scouts "to go into the rebel states...carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries." Lincoln was concerned that in the seemingly likely event that he lost the upcoming presidential election, conditions would be such that those enslaved people that had not yet escaped behind Union lines might never be emancipated. In Douglass's August 29, 1864 proposal in response to Lincoln's request, he presented a plan to facilitate an increased pace of escape. Not long after, the Union army captured Atlanta, which changed public sentiment and led to Lincoln winning reelection in a landslide. Rather than implement Douglass's plan, Lincoln focused his energy on getting passage of the 13th Amendment, permanently ending slavery in the United States.

By the end of the exhibit the photos and artifacts show the influence Douglass had on following generations of African American leaders, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, the poet Langston Hughes, and muckraker, activist, and writer Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Du Bois had heard Douglass speak, and then was one of the eulogists at Douglass's memorial service. Washington wrote one of the first full biographies of Douglass in 1907. Hughes had written a poem about him, and Wells-Barnett had met Douglass in 1892, after which he became her mentor and friend. You'll also find original copies of Douglass's autobiographies and other fascinating artifacts.

The exhibit is at the National Portrait Gallery until April 21, 2024. While you're there, check out the new full-length painting of Abraham Lincoln in the hall of presidents.


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