The Frederick Douglass Community: A Black Abolitionist in Murals and Street Art

By the time of his death in 1895, leading black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, rather than Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman or General Custer (as scholars have previously claimed). Even as an African American man was considered subhuman by many white Americans, Douglass was visually famous and immediately recognizable by millions when these commissioned and self-directed photographic portraits circulated as engravings in the press and were collected and displayed. From the first photograph in 1841 to the last in 1894, Douglass used photography to argue against racial oppression and for black equality; to be more dignified, elegant and represented than any of the white citizens who embraced photographic portraits to express and establish middle-class identity. In Douglass’ awareness of the possibilities of imagery to shape public opinion, in this attempt by America’s first black celebrity to control and circulate his own image as a way to combat racist caricatures, we see one of the first great visual battles in American history.

These photographs have a vast visual legacy. Their afterlife includes hundreds of paintings, drawings, cartoons, sculptures and public murals based on specific photographs. In fact, Douglass is one of the most frequent presences in murals and street art, dominating the sides of community centres, libraries and schools, the walls of black and white neighbourhoods, appearing in both his youthful and aged forms in around 100 murals across the North, South, East and West of the U.S. plus several international sites. The majority of these 20th and 21st-century mural reimaginings of Douglass are indebted to his own strategies of self-memorialization. The artists who made Douglass part of their communities, from the 1910s to the 2010s, clearly had access to the 19th-century photographs in private collections, black newspapers or library archives.

This exhibition brings together a selection of the murals for the first time. Though inventive and initially cherished, they are ephemeral and sometimes neglected or destroyed. In some cases, photographic documentation is our only record of their existence. The 15 murals are from a range of geographical locales and show Douglass at various ages, from the fighter and fugitive of the 1850s to the elder statesman of the 1880s. He appears alongside other historical figures—most often Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln—and is the ancestral root of an African American ‘family’ tree (#6), an early civil rights “patriot” (#9), a free speech advocate (#10), and an icon of anti-racism (#14). As the U.S. marks the 150th anniversaries of its Civil War (2011-2015), slave emancipation (2013) and the abolition of slavery (2015), all events in which Douglass played a key role, he emerges from its walls as a cultural icon; a figure not only cited by President Obama as a forerunner and heralded by civil rights leaders as a godfather to 20th-century social justice movements, but painted into communities as a symbol of interracial collaboration, radical heritage and educational inspiration.

Professor Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham

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