What Will Happen With The Frederick Douglass Bicentennial?

What Would Frederick Douglasss Say

Photo by John Muller & William Alston-El. Copyright is strictly restricted and enforced.

With less than three months until the 200th birthday in February 2018 of Frederick Douglass, one of the most consequential and important native sons in the history of our country, the Bicentennial Commission tasked with planning, developing, and carrying out programs and activities to honor Douglass is not even formed.

After introducing resolutions in previous legislative sessions, Congresswomen Eleanor Holmes Norton (D – District of Columbia) introduced H.R. 2989 in June 2017 to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Following an amendment process, on October 18, 2017 the resolution passed the Senate and became law on November 2, 2017, signed by President Trump.

Late last week Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D – California) appointed Representative Norton and Kenneth Morris, a Douglass descendant, to the Commission. In total the Commission is to be composed of 16 members. The remaining 14 members will be appointed as follows:

  • Two members appointed by the President.
  • Four members appointed by the President on the recommendation of each of the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the Governors of Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.
  • Three members, at least one of whom must be a Member of the House, appointed by the Speaker of the House.
  • Three members, at least one of whom must be a Senator, appointed by the Senate Majority Leader.
  • Two members, at least one of whom must be a Senator, appointed by the Senate Minority Leader

No additional members have been announced. Probable candidates include Senator Charles Schumer (D – New York), Senator Chris Van Hollen (D – Maryland), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D – Massachusetts), Congressman Andy Harris (R – Maryland) and others members of the House and Senate.

What Will This Amount To?

The Commission appears tantamount to a conventional paper tiger with ceremonial names. While some may feel a stately Commission honors the memory of the abolitionist, journalist and reformist, Frederick Douglass deserves better. Much better. It is too late to do better.

The Lincoln Bicentennial Commission was formed in 2000. Nine years before Lincoln’s Bicentennial was celebrated in 2009.

While Frederick Douglass touches many cities, counties, states and countries, there is no existing coordination between Douglass-related heritage sites, landmarks and museums, scholars, academics and authors, educators, re-enactors and interpretive tour guides and institutions that promote and preserve the legacy of Douglass.

In recent years a number of statues of Douglass have been erected and placed in prominent places such as the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall, the campus of the University of Maryland, National Harbor, Easton, Maryland and a college campus in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The first Douglass statue was erected in 1899 in Rochester, New York. It has been moved from its original location and by some accounts has been forgotten in the city where Douglass launched the influential North Star in 1847. In the early 1990s the city added another Douglass likeness in a public park having tea with Susan B. Anthony. There are multiple statues of Douglass in New York City, including one just outside of the New York Historical Society.

Despite the many statues and Douglass’ connection to the Library of Congress, where the majority of his personal papers are archived, Howard University, where he served on the Board of Trustees from 1871 until his death, Yale University, which began the Frederick Douglass Papers Project in the early 1970s and the Department of Interior which has had administrative jurisdiction over the National Park Service’s Frederick Douglass National Historic Site since the Kennedy Administration, the upcoming Bicentennial has been orphaned.

The politicians have issued their press releases with laudatory quotes about the Bicentennial Commission. But who will now do the bare-knuckle work required to plan, organize and execute a robust schedule of public programs including lectures, tours, essay and oratorical contests across three states and the District of Columbia, as well as attempt to tackle the amazing deficit of scholarship and scholarly infrastructure?

Is there an individual, group of individuals or institution that is poised and capable to take the lead with so little time before the Bicentennial calendar turns?

Frederick Douglass was born a slave, a non-citizen. By the time of his death he had advised Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison.

Unfortunately, President Trump cannot appoint Mr. Douglass to his own Bicentennial Commission, despite comments earlier this year by the President which caused many to perceive he did not know Douglass was no longer with us.

In the void of a functioning Douglass Bicentennial there are two things which will undoubtedly keep him in the public consciousness throughout 2018:

The United States Mint placing Douglass and Cedar Hill on a quarter earlier this year, and Will Ferrell portraying Abraham Lincoln and Don Cheadle portraying Frederick Douglass in an episode of Drunk History that has been viewed nearly 4 and a half million times on YouTube.

Although Douglass did not imbibe and was an active temperance leader this is what his memory has been reduced to: Drunk History.


John Muller

Author, Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia (The History Press, 2012)

Organizing Frederick Douglass Community Conference, Saturday, Dec. 9th at DC Prep’s Anacostia Elementary Campus, 1409 V Street SE.


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