He was the heroic abolitionist who escaped slavery on a US plantation and came to Leeds to spread a message of freedom and equality.
Now a thought-provoking new display paying tribute to the extraordinary life of Fredrick Douglass has been unveiled at Leeds City Museum as the city marks Black History Month. Telling the story of one the most prominent African American figures in the campaign to end slavery, the display describes how Douglass became a fugitive from a plantation in Maryland in 1838, eventually starting a new life in Massachusetts with his wife Ann Murray.
Using his gift for writing and public speaking, he rose to become a noted orator for the Massachusetts Anti- Slavery Society as well as editor of his own newspaper and author of three autobiographies. His first-hand experience of slavery and eloquence both at the podium and with a pen combined to make him a huge success and his book ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’ proved a major hit.
But his increased public profile and his status as a fugitive brought with them a risk of possible capture and a return to slavery so, in 1845, he travelled to England where he began travelling the country, giving lectures and selling his book.
In 1846, that journey brought him to Leeds where, on December 12, the Leeds Mercury reported: “We understand Frederick Douglass, the fugitive American slave, is expected to deliver lectures on American Slavery in Leeds, the week after next.”
In that impassioned speech, Douglass declared: “I am rejoiced to know that slavery is attracting attention extensively at this moment in Great Britain; and of all of the nations of the earth England should be foremost in advancing the great cause of emancipation.”
Douglass spent two years in England and in 1847, before he returned to America, friends he had made in Newcastle bought his freedom. In later life, he became US Marshal of the District of Columbia and in 1889, Consul General of the Republic of Haiti. He died on the February 20, 1895.
Marek Romaniszyn, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ assistant community curator, has been installing the new display this week. He said:
“Frederick Douglass was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story to tell and his bravery and eloquence in sharing his experiences as a slave and a fugitive helped present the realities of the fight for emancipation to the public in a way that was both raw and engaging.
“We’re very proud to be celebrating his life at the museum and to be helping new visitors to explore his fascinating legacy during Black History Month.”
The new display is part of a programme of Black History Month events and activities happening in Leeds recognising the achievements and contributions of people of African and Caribbean heritage and encouraging people to learn more.
Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council said:
“The history of Leeds is filled with inspiring stories of people of African and Caribbean descent who have made a lasting impression on the city and left a memorable and important legacy behind.
“Now more than ever, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate those stories and to pay tribute to those who endured so much through the centuries as they blazed a trial in the continuing fight for freedom and equality.”
Information focused on Black History Month will also be available on My Learning, an award-winning free website of curriculum-linked teaching resources: www.mylearning.org