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Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century

Goran Blazeski

The exact birth date of Frederick Douglass is unknown but it is known that in 1818, he was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland.

He lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. His mother died when he was ten years old and he was eventually sent to the Baltimore home of Hugh Auld.

Auld’s wife Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet when he was around 12 and when Auld forbade his wife’s lessons, Frederick continued to learn from the white children.

Hired by William Freeland, he became a teacher at a weekly church service where he taught the other slaves from the plantations how to read the New Testament.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Douglas tried to escape slavery twice but he managed to succeed only with the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore. He escaped slavery in Maryland in 1838, then forged a storied career as a preeminent champion of emancipation and civil rights.

Eventually, he got married to Anna Murray on September 15th, 1838, and they settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Douglass would later become one of the most appreciated abolitionists, orators, and writers of his time.

He delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket and in 1845 he wrote and published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

Anna Murray-Douglass, Douglass's wife for 44 years

Anna Murray-Douglass, Douglass’s wife for 44 years

Later he produced some abolitionist newspapers: The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era.

He was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. He was known to be an outspoken supporter of women’s rights.

He not only understood the power of the written or spoken word, but also the power of the visual image and that’s the reason he sat for portraits whenever he could.

Douglass was photographed more than any other American in the nineteenth century, beating out George Custer, Walt Whitman and even Abraham Lincoln.

Many of these rare, historically significant images were published for the first time in Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier.

Douglass around 29 years of age.

Douglass around 29 years of age.

Soon after he escaped enslavement in Maryland in 1840s, Douglass began posing.

He eventually wrote essays and speeches about the “moral and social influence” of photography. In the 1860s, he described photos as “a potential source of self-confidence for oppressed people”- as reported by The New York Times.

The authors of the book used many different methods for sourcing photos of him. They looked for photos of Douglas in hundreds of European and American repositories, including libraries, museums, schools, historical societies, government archives, and auction houses.

 

Frederick Douglass stood up to speak in favor of women's right to vote, photo, c. 1840s. Photo Credit

Frederick Douglass spoke in favor of the women’s right to vote, photo, c. 1840s. Photo Credit

 

Frederick Douglass in 1856

Frederick Douglass in 1856

 

Douglass, circa 1860s

Douglass, circa 1860s

 

Frederick Douglass (before 1897)

Frederick Douglass (before 1897)

 

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass (sitting). The woman standing is her sister Eva Pitts.

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass (sitting). The woman standing is her sister Eva Pitts.

His wife Anna died and Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from Honeoye, New York. They were married for 11 years.

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Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke on February 20, 1895. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.