One of the most familiar photographs of Frederick Douglass
By Christine Kinealy
Frederick Douglass, as recent research has shown, was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.
Douglass himself was fascinated with the possibilities offered by photography, being keenly aware of its value both as ‘democratic art” and also as propaganda, in his struggle to show black people (including himself) in a positive light.
Hence he was a regular visitor to photographic studios, especially as he got older.
Around 160 photographs of Douglass are known to exist, the last one being taken in the year of his death, 1895.
Early ones from the 1840s, when Douglass was establishing his reputation and photography was still in its infancy, are far rarer.
Inevitably, less is known about these early images.
This is the case in regard to an early photograph (or daguerreotype) of Douglass, which is in the collection of the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse.
It is currently on loan to the University of Rochester who are trying to resolve the mystery of “where and when it was made.”
Ralph Wiegandt, a researcher at the university, estimates that daguerreotype dates from 1850, when Douglass would have been aged 32.
In contrast, a recent publication entitled “Picturing Frederick Douglass” suggests that the daguerreotype dates from 1843 and was taken when Douglass visited Syracuse.
However, research undertaken by myself reveals that the origins of this photograph lie in Boston, and it probably dates from early 1845.
Who is the handsome and composed young man who is at the center of this mystery?
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 – two decades before photography made its formal appearance.
He never knew his actual birth day, but chose 14 February, because when he was young his mother had referred to him as her ‘little Valentine.”
At the age of 20, encouraged by two Irishmen he met while working in Baltimore, he escaped to the north, settling in the relative safety of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
There, he changed his name to Douglass.
However, as a fugitive slave, he lived in danger of being captured and returned to his “master.”
Following attendance at an anti-slavery meeting, where he made an impromptu speech, Douglass was invited by the Antislavery Society to become a full time lecturer.
It was a role in which he excelled, but which also gave him a public profile.
Following the publication of his “Narrative” in early 1845, the danger of his being captured increased and Douglass was persuaded to leave America for his own safety.
Thus, in August of that year, he sailed from Boston to Liverpool, and from there on to Dublin, where a Quaker publisher had agreed to publish the “Narrative.”
Douglass had travelled to Ireland intending to stay for only a few days, but he ended up remaining there for four months, during the course of which he gave almost fifty public lectures.
Douglass was impressed with Irish abolitionists, describing them as the most “ardent” he had ever met.
Moreover, he described his time in Ireland as “transformative,” feeling for the first time he was a man, and not simply “a colour.”
After Ireland, Douglass travelled to Britain where he lectured for a further fifteen months, until a group of women abolitionists raised the money to “purchase” his freedom.
This enabled Douglass to return to America – and to his wife and children – in the summer of 1847.
His exile had changed him, giving him a voice and a transatlantic platform from which to promote not simply abolition, but international human rights.
But to the mysterious daguerreotype.
Douglass’s movements in Ireland and Britain were closely followed and publicized by his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, who was based in Boston.
Boston, a center of abolitionist activity, also contained an active Ladies Anti-Slavery Society.
Abolition was one of the few areas in which women could operate in the public sphere, and in this regard they proved to be as efficient and committed as their male counterparts, especially when it came to fund-raising.
Since 1835, the Boston Ladies’ Society – who were followers of Garrison – had organized annual bazaars to raise money to fund the activities of the men and to help finance newspapers, lectures etc.
The twelfth annual bazaar was held in Faneuil Hall and ran from 23 December 1845 to 1 January 1846.
Amongst the paraphernalia, household items and handcrafted goods on sale (a portion of which had been sent by female abolitionists in Ireland) were “An excellent Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass.”
The photograph was a gift of “Mr. Southworth” and it “elicited much attention.”
In total, the bazaar raised almost $4,000.
The donor of the daguerreotype was Albert Sands Southworth (1811–1894), a chemist by training who was a pioneer in photography.
He was a partner of Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) and together they owned Southworth and Hawes Studios in Tremont Row in Boston, which Southworth had first opened in 1843 (some accounts say 1841).
They were renowned for taking high-quality portraits that revealed the personality of the sitter, with little reliance on props.
The donation of the daguerreotype to the Ladies’ Bazaar means that the date of the Douglass photograph is narrowed down considerably.
It is likely that mysterious daguerreotype of Douglass was taken around the time his “Narrative” appeared, in early 1845, when he was aged just 27.
Some years later, c. 1850, Garrison also had his photograph taken at this studio.
This daguerreotype is owned by the Met, but not currently on view.
This new information about the mysterious daguerreotype gives us a fresh insight into young Frederick Douglass – a self-educated “fugitive” slave, who would later achieve fame as a civil rights champion and an advisor to four American presidents.
There is no doubt that his time in Ireland played a part in this transformation, but this early photograph captures Douglass when he was on the threshold of a life-changing journey, during which time he was transformed – in his own words – from a chattel to a man.
Although it is not known who bought the daguerreotype, or how it made its way to Syracuse, the mystery is closer to being resolved.
Quinnipiac University’s Christine Kinealy is a Director of the Frederick Douglass (Ireland) Project. She is also author of “The Saddest People the Sun Sees. Daniel O’Connell and the Anti-Slavery Movement” (Pickering and Chatto, 2011).