Frederick Douglass, Seen Up Close


In 2006, the historian David Blight had just given a talk about Frederick Douglass in Savannah, Ga., when he was introduced to Walter Evans, a retired surgeon and collector. Dr. Evans invited him to stop by the house and see his Douglass collection. Dr. Blight was cautiously intrigued.

But later, as Dr. Evans began laying out some carefully rebound scrapbooks on his dining room table, he was stunned to see page after page of newspaper clippings, letters and personal reminiscences of the escaped slave who became one of the most famous men in 19th century America.

They were the Douglass family scrapbooks, carefully assembled and annotated by Douglass’s sons — and all but unknown to scholars.

“I was astonished,” Dr. Blight recalled in an interview. “I’m not even sure I knew what I was seeing at first.”

Dr. Evans put it a bit more vividly. “I could see David’s head exploding,” he said.

The trove became a seedbed for Dr. Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” And now, it has been acquired by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it will sit alongside materials from African-American artists, writers and activism in its James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.

Interest in Douglass (along with prices for Douglass materials) has surged in recent years, in part because of Dr. Blight’s biography, which is being adapted for the screen for Netflix by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. Melissa Barton, the Beinecke’s curator of American prose and poetry, called Dr. Evans’s collection the most important known to have remained in private hands.

“Every few years, you will see small groups of Douglass letters come up at auction,” she said. “But something of this size and scope is really unheard-of.”

The collection includes manuscripts or typescripts of some of Douglass’s most famous orations, including his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and his 1879 eulogy for the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, a mentor with whom he later broke.

There are also photographs, account books, ephemera and letters, including more than 40 from his son Lewis to Lewis’s wife, Amelia, some written while he was at the front with the famed Massachusetts 54th, one of the first Black regiments to fight in the Civil War.

But perhaps the richest and most revealing items, Dr. Blight said, are the family scrapbooks, which track both Douglass’s sprawling public career in the years after the war and his complicated and sometimes scandalous private life.

“If people know anything about Douglass, they know the young Douglass, the heroic former slave who escapes and makes himself into a spectacular orator,” Dr. Blight said. “But this is a window onto the older Douglass — the patriarch, the former radical outsider who is now a kind of political insider. We’ve never known much about that Douglass.”

Over a decade of work on the biography, Dr. Blight made regular visits to Dr. Evans’s dining room, which became an informal reading room for him and other scholars who got wind of Dr. Evans’s collections, which also include material relating to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Dr. Evans, also a leading collector of African-American art, acquired the bulk of the Douglass collection in the 1980s from a dealer. He described his historic house in Savannah as so crammed with an estimated 100,000 rare books and manuscripts that even his wife never entered some rooms.

On one visit, after Dr. Blight recalled once meeting Jacob Lawrence, Dr. Evans took him to a closet where the artist’s print series “The Legend of John Brown” was stacked against a wall. On another, Dr. Blight mentioned a previous book project relating to James Baldwin.

“Walter said, ‘Oh, Jimmy? Go back in the TV room on the right. I have about 100 Baldwin letters,” he said.

The Beinecke acquired the Baldwin letters in 2013. The Douglass acquisition, Dr. Blight said, was the result of “a long courtship” (with no shortage of suitors, Dr. Evans noted).

The Beinecke, citing library policy, would not disclose any financial terms of the Douglass acquisition. But the library did note that it was also receiving roughly 200 drawings by the pioneering 20th-century African-American political cartoonist Oliver Wendell Harrington from Dr. Evans by donation.

Dr. Barton, the curator, said the scrapbooks — made during the 19th-century heyday of scrapbooking — are particularly rich and rare, giving a glimpse not just of Douglass’s public and private life, but of the way it was curated by his family. “Their self-consciousness about their role in history is fascinating,” she said.

In one, letters from prominent figures like Sen. Charles Sumner, the African-American abolitionist Martin Delaney and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier are pasted in. There are also handwritten personal narratives by two of his sons, including one called “Some Incidents of the Home Life of Frederick Douglass.” They offer insights not just into Douglass, Dr. Blight said, but also into his 44-year marriage to Anna Murray, a free Black woman who helped him escape from slavery in 1838.

Thousands of newspaper clippings record his public career, which included serving as consul general to Haiti and as superintendent of Washington, D.C. But the scrapbooks don’t just record his triumphs. They also record the public interest in the more complicated parts of his life as patriarch to a large and sometimes difficult extended clan — in its day, “the Black first family of Washington,” as Dr. Blight put it.

One scrapbook is dedicated mostly to the public controversy over his second marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years his junior. Other clippings document his sometimes intense rivalries with other Black leaders like John Mercer Langston.

In 1888, Douglass opposed Langston’s bid to become the first Black congressman from Virginia, on the grounds that he was insufficiently loyal to the Republican Party. Instead, he supported Langston’s white opponent, a former Confederate, prompting one editorialist to charge Douglass with “a vain sacrifice of race to the fetish of party and personal pique.”

“Man, the D.C. press got all over that,” Dr. Blight said. “And if one of his sons gets into bankruptcy trouble, that’s in there too.”

Douglass, who died in 1895, was the most photographed American of the 19th century, but his voice was never recorded. Still, it’s his soaring oratory that most vividly endures.

As it has for the past few years, the Beinecke will mark the Fourth of July with a reading of both the Declaration of Independence and of Douglass’s famous Fourth of July oration of 1852. (This year, it will be online.) Douglass begins with a searing critique of American hypocrisy before offering his white audience a vision of an America that might yet live up to its ideals.

“He rips the throats out of his audience, before lifting them up at the end,” Dr. Blight said. “He says ‘It’s not quite too late. Your nation is still young, still malleable. It’s still possible to save yourselves.’”

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