Posts Tagged Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

Letter to New Yorker; Important factual correction needed; “The Prophetic Pragmatism of Frederick Douglass” in October 15, 2018 edition

Cover of The New Yorker's first issue in 1925 with illustration depicting iconic character Eustace TilleyOctober 15, 2018

David Remnick: Editor, The New Yorker
Adam Gopnik: Staff Writer, The New Yorker
Andrew Boynton, Copy Editor, The New Yorker
Team of Copy Editors, The New Yorker

On October 10, 2018 I was alerted via text message by a member of the family of Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass about Adam Gopnik’s article, “The Prophetic Pragmatism of Frederick Douglass” in the October 15, 2018 print edition of The New Yorker.

In a forthcoming letter I will address concerns members of the Douglass Family and Bailey Tribe have expressed to me regarding the “speculative history” Mr. Gopnik posits in “The Prophetic Pragmatism of Frederick Douglass.”

However, this letter is prompted by a blaring and outstanding factual error in Mr. Gopnik’s article.

In the the last sentence of the third paragraph it reads:

And then, in 1881, when he was in his sixties, he published “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” in which this man, who had watched the ships go by in the Chesapeake Bay with a desperate sense of disbelief that anyone or anything in the world could be so free, was able to report on his journeys to Cairo and Paris and his reception in both as a man of state and of letters.

This sentence is false.

Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass, America’s Pharaoh, first visited Paris in 1886 and Cairo in 1887. I have researched these visits and published facts and particulars about these visits on the blog.

Dr. Douglass does not detail these visits in the 1881 version of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass as it would have been a metaphysical impossibility as well a rupture of the space-time continuum.

Dr. Douglass reported on his journeys to Cairo and Paris in his 1892 version of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Nothing less than a correction to the online article and a print correction in the next available edition of The New Yorker will properly uplift and correct the fallen history of Dr. Douglass in the bicentennial year of his birth.


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

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Video: “Frederick Douglass and Islam” (America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, Feb., 24, 2018)

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Harvard’s John Stauffer has actively perpetuated a lie about Anna teaching Frederick how to play the violin for a decade. It is unnecessary and needs to be corrected. (Part 1)

Stauffer in BaltimoreLast year I saw the last show of The Agitators at the Geva Theatre in Rochester. Among some of my critiques of the play was a scene that insinuated Anna Douglass played the violin in tandem with her husband, Frederick.

While not a major technical foul it struck me as forced, unnecessary and without any source provenance I’d seen or could recall. While it was in the context of a play I can understand the need for imagination but the play’s handbill made the point that a dramaturge had closely reviewed the play. Mentioned as folks who had lent their expertise was Harvard’s John Stauffer.

In conversations with Douglassonians following the play it was advanced that Stauffer was the likely source for the violin reference as his 2008 book, Giants, makes mention of this make-believe embellishment on page 71.

Her name was Anna Murray and she was a free woman, having been born free on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She had almond-shaped eyes, a full round face, and dark skin, and she worked as a maid for the Wells family on South Caroline Street in Baltimore. At twenty-five, she was five years older than Frederick and had moved to Baltimore at age seventeen. Quiet and hardworking, she was virtually illiterate but could read music, and when she played Haydn or Handel on her violin her hymns seemed to enchant the room. She taught Frederick the violin, he was a quick study, and soon they were playing duets.

This weekend I met Stauffer for the first time.

I asked him about the reference of Anna teaching Frederick how to play the violin. He told me it was in Life and Times and said he’d send me the citation. Since he has yet to do so I am taking the initiative.

NO existing references in Life and Times in either 1881 or 1892 revision.

1881 version of Life and Times references to the violin.

p. 143

The fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. This latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin, or of other musical instruments, and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater.

1892 version of Life and Times references to the violin.

p. 181

The fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. This latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin or other musical instruments and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater. The performer improvised as he beat the instrument, marking the words as he sang so as to have them fall pat with the movement of his hands.

p. 691

But of all the interesting objects collected in the Museum of Genoa, the one that touched me most was the violin that had belonged to and been played upon by Paganini, the greatest musical genius of his time. This violin is treasured in a glass case and beyond the touch of careless fingers, a thing to be seen and not handled.

p. 692

So this old violin, made after the pattern of others and perhaps not more perfect in its construction and tone than hundreds seen elsewhere, detained me longer and interested me more than anything else in the Museum of Genoa. Emerson says, “It is not the thing said, but the man behind it, that is important.” So it was not this old violin, but the marvelous man behind it, the man who had played on it and played as never man played before, and thrilled the hearts of thousands by his playing, that made it a precious object in my eyes. Owing perhaps to my love of music and of the violin in particular, I would have given more for that old violin of wood, horse-hair, and catgut than for any one of the long line of pictures I saw before me. I desired it on account of the man who had played upon it–the man who revealed its powers and possibilities as they were never known before. This was his old violin, his favorite instrument, the companion of his toils and triumphs, the solace of his private hours, the minister to his soul in his battles with sin and sorrow. It had delighted thousands. Men had listened to it with admiration and wonder. It had filled the largest halls of Europe with a concord of sweet sounds. It had even stirred the dull hearts of courts, kings and princes, and revealed to them their kinship to common mortals as perhaps had been done by no other instrument. It was with some difficulty that I moved away from this old violin of Paginini.


We will follow-up this post with the existing source material which details how, where and when Douglass took up the violin, as well as a scholarly critique of Stauffer’s presentation on Douglass at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum where he failed to acknowledge the scholarship of Baltimorean Douglassonian Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Morgan State University, among other errors.

We are critical of “Douglass experts” at Yale and Harvard because their erroneous scholarship and speculation should not be acceptable from a high school student let alone from Professors at these two prestigious universities.

It shouldn’t be me calling them out, but call them out I will. Anything less would be a disservice to the truth.


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Case for Speculations: No, David Blight, Douglass’ 1200 pages of biography is “not in the way.” (Part 3)

IMG_5849.JPGSpeculative historian Prof. David Blight has been provided a platform within the most elite of institutions for decades to genuflect on Frederick Douglass without advancing meaningful and lasting Douglassonian scholarship.

Speaking at the Harvard Law School in the fall of 2016 Blight said:

And that’s the first problem that anyone working on Douglass faces. It’s how the autobiography is always in the way of the biographer. The problem with Douglass is that the subject is always in your way. And you’re constantly trying to get around him, through him, over him. Sometimes, you just want to sit on him. You know, chain him to a chair – bad metaphor – and say, “Stop now!” Why don’t you talk about these 100 subjects in your autobiography?

For historians, such as Blight, who are long on speculation and short on facts I can understand how and why they would make such a telling statement.

Early Douglass biographers, such as Booker T. and Huggins, and more modern writers have simply repeated, regurgitated and retold the story Douglass told in his own life of his life. As Blight says, Douglass wrote 1200 pages of autobiography across his 1845, 1855 and 1881 works, along with an 1892 edition of Life and Times.

The challenges faced by Douglass biographers due to the limitations of Douglass’ own writings are only challenges if you make it so. To industrious and committed Douglassonians these limitations are opportunities.

For example, Douglass never offers a single mention of Howard University in his autobiographical works. For me, this was an opportunity to give a fuller account than had been previously published about FD’s service to Howard University for more than twenty years. I dedicated an entire chapter in Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. to Howard University.

Not only was Douglass on Howard’s Board of Trustees from 1871 until his death, he raised money for Howard, regularly attended graduations and campus events, assisted in organizing the first alumni association, mentored Howard students and welcomed them to his Washington homes, welcomed VIPs to campus including President Hayes, testified before Congress on behalf of Howard and was by all accounts, other than his autobiographical writings, a fierce advocate for the university faculty and its students in innumerable ways.

I will continue to correct not only Blight’s current stale interpretations, speculations and presentations on Douglass but his decades of inert scholarship and blatant exploitation of Mr. Douglass.

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Frederick Douglass’ book translated into French and printed in Paris, 1883 [Mes Années D’esclavage Et De Libertie = My Years of Slavery and Liberty]

FD in Paris _ p. 4 (1883 translation)ED Note: This isn’t the best quality scan but you get the idea. The idea is Parisians knew about FD before he stepped through la rues.

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Free to the Public!! — Frederick Douglass Symposium at IUPUI in Indianapolis October 4th & 5th

If you can make it out to Indianapolis on Thursday, October 4th and Friday, October 5th the IU School of Liberal Arts IUPUI and its English and History departments, the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, and the IUPUI Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is planning a free public symposium, “Rediscovering the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: A Public Symposium”

More information HERE! 


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