Frederick Douglass 19th Century Superhero  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the black superhero of the 19th century.  The Maryland-born slave-reformer struggled not only for the freedom of fellow slaves but also for the rights of women. 

He was one of those characters who came along like Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, and Martin Luther King who literally altered the course of history. 

“Oppression makes a wise man mad.”
— Frederick Douglass

Raised by loving grandparents Douglass learned a lot about family, fairness and faith long before he realized he was a slave.

"I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day," he is quoted as saying.  "She was with me in the night.  She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep."  Then she was gone--back in the fields by daybreak in one of the nearby slave holder's farms.

Douglass could sense his mother's sadness but he never understood why until much, much later.  He never knew for sure who his father was and someone told him his mother had died when he was seven-years-old.   

With no formal education Douglass went on to become one of America's most important unapologetic authors, editors, eloquent lecturers, human rights activists, ambassadors and even advisor to Abraham Lincoln.  

"No man started so low and climbed so high as he."  That's what was said about Douglass after he died.

With a price on his head the fugitive slave put a face to slavery, made people walk right up to it and take a hard look.

He did it in 1845 with his 125-page autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" which cost fifty cents.  The first American edition sold out as did the French and German editions.  Those published in Ireland and England also took off. It was the victims view of history.  Not the victors.      

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck," Douglass said. 

Douglass brought people face-to-face with the brutalities and humiliations of slavery. 

He was the keynote speaker at a Fourth of July celebration on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York's stately Corinthian Hall.  He stood before a mostly white audience and began.

"Oppression makes a wise man mad," Douglass said. 

Referring to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution he added, "Your fathers were wise men. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs."

With regard to the plight of slaves in the present he added:  "There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."    

The hall was silent when Douglass finished talking.  As he gathered the pages of his speech together and turned to leave the audience erupted into applause.  His speech was called the century's most powerful speech against slavery. 

Thousands gathered at his funeral in 1895.  It was the funeral of one of the most celebrated men of the 19th century.

On March 16, Swann Auction Galleries featured a selection of Frederick Douglass materials in its Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction.

Frederick Douglass

Placard; Maintenance Fund Drive to Insure Perpetual Upkeep of the Home of Frederick Douglass, the Abolitionist;  circa 1900-1910; 11 inches by 14 inches;  $281.

Book; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, Written by Himself; 125 pages; 1845;  $2,750.

Book; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, Written by Himself; 125 pages; missingportrait frontispiece of Douglass; only five known copies; 1847;  $20,000.

Newspaper; The North Star; Vol.1, No, XIV; 1848; includes editorial by Douglass;   $25,000.

Autographed Letter Signed; speaks to the character of Harriet Tubman and her service to anti-slavery movement; co-signed by Douglass; addressed to Maria Porter; 1864;  $40,000.         



Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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