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Picturing Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist the subject of a new exhibit at Museum of African American History

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Portrait of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was one of the 19th century’s most prominent intellectuals and social reformers, and a leader of the Abolitionist movement. He was also the most photographed American of his time; many of those photographs can be seen in a new exhibit at the Museum of African American History.

Arguably the most influential African American of the 19th century, the former slave Frederick Douglass was not only one of the leaders of the movement to abolish slavery, but also a best-selling author, diplomat, lecturer, and newspaper publisher. In addition to calling for an end to slavery, Douglass was a champion of women’s rights and public education.

What is less well-known about the eloquent reformer is his passion for photography. Beginning in 1841 and until his death in 1895, Douglass sat for his portrait every chance he got, becoming “the most photographed man of the 19th century”—topping even Abraham Lincoln.

Photographic portraits of Douglass are the subject of a new exhibit at the Museum of African American History, titled Picturing Frederick Douglass. The exhibit is based on a recently published book of the same name by the co-curators of the museum show, John Stauffer of Harvard University and Zoe Trodd of the University of Nottingham.

The photographs on view, as the exhibit notes, trace Douglass’s journey and reinvention “from self-emancipated man to firebrand abolitionist and elder statesman.” The show emphasizes his view that photography could be used as a tool of reform, a way of elevating the image of African Americans “in contradiction to demeaning and inhumane depictions of black life often seen in the 19th century.”

The exhibit includes a number of previously unpublished photographs of Douglass, several of which were taken in Boston. The portraits range from Douglass’s early life—he escaped slavery in 1838—to his later years as a statesman and social reformer.

More than 90 objects are included in the show. In addition to the photographs, visitors can see books, newspaper articles, and letters written by Douglass, all designed to give contemporary viewers a better understanding of African American life in the 19th century and Douglass’s role in achieving an end to slavery and other societal reform movements. There are also a number of interactive displays and clickable digital maps.

Picturing Frederick Douglass is on view at the Museum of African American History, 46 Joy St, Boston, until July 31, 2017. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for teens and seniors, and free for children under 12. Take any MBTA Green Line train to Park Street and walk up Beacon Hill to Joy St.

Connor Lenahan can be reached at lenahan@bu.edu.

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