The Extraordinary Frederick Douglass

For his entire adult life, David W. Blight has lived, breathed and dreamed often about Frederick Douglass. “There is no greater voice in 19th century history,” he declared to a rapt audience of Chapin community members, including the students in Classes 7 and 11.

Since 2007, Chapin has enjoyed a wonderful partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which fosters the understanding of American history through educational programs. This year, Professor Blight visited Chapin on January 29 to deliver the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Lecture, centering his fascinating presentation on his new biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” which meticulously chronicles the former slave’s journey to becoming one of the most influential writers and orators of his era. Since it was published last October, the 764-page book has received much praise, including a spot on The New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2018” list.

“Frederick Douglass was a very complicated, deeply human person,” began Professor Blight, who serves as the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale. “He was probably also the most photographed American during this time,” he stated, clicking through a series of striking images of Douglass projected on the screen in the Assembly Room. Only Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant were as robustly photographed he noted.

While a “a stunning young man and a stunning older man,” Professor Blight said Frederick Douglass’ good looks weren’t the only reason his image appeared so widely. “He cultivated photographers. As if to say, ‘Look at me, I’m black, I’m educated and I’m smart.’”

Born in or around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass spent two decades as a slave. When he was 9 years old, his owner, Thomas Auld, sent him to Baltimore to live with members of Auld’s family. Living in this city afforded him the opportunity to expand both his worldview and his literacy. He attended several churches and became transfixed by preachers whose sermons were filled with passages from the Bible. He also discovered “The Columbian Orator,” a popular collection of political essays and other missives, which his white friends from the neighborhood studied in school.

In 1838, 20-year-old Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and finally managed to escape to freedom using the Underground Railroad, settling at first in Massachusetts. On that fateful night, he held his tattered copy of the “Orator,” “the most precious possession he owned,” said Professor Blight. It was during a private visit to Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass’ later-in-life Washington, D.C. house, that Professor Blight was able to hold the treasured book in his gloved hands, noting that, “It was the most moving experience of my life.”

Guided by this transformative publication and the King James Bible, Douglass became well versed in the principles of the anti-slavery movement, also known as abolitionism. He traveled extensively throughout the country, expounding his unorthodox ideas in the form of rousing speeches and provocative writings.

“Like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass was a master with words,” said Professor Blight. In addition to penning three versions of his autobiography, totaling some 1,200 pages, in 1847, Douglass founded “The North Star,” an influential black newspaper that denounced slavery and promoted women’s rights.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Douglass was a consultant to President Lincoln, helping to persuade him that slaves should serve in the Union Army and that ending slavery should be an objective of the war. The following two years – when Congress abolished slavery in 1862 and when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, freeing all Union slaves – were great personal triumphs for Douglass, who died in 1895 in Rochester, New York.

Speaking with authority, exuberance and humor, Professor Blight also described Douglass’ struggle to strike a balance between his public identity and his private life, which included his wife, Anna, and their five children. Douglass’ unwavering support of women’s suffrage, despite a public falling-out with movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was also touched upon.

At the end of this engrossing talk, Professor Blight welcomed questions from the audience. “How did studying Frederick Douglass change you?” one Class 7 student asked the distinguished historian. “I don’t know yet,” he replied with a laugh. One thing is certain: Professor Blight, through his magnificent scholarship, has illuminated for so many a singularly remarkable man who changed the course of history.

Browse photos from the evening below: