Oxford AASC: Focus On Frederick Douglass and American History

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Frederick Douglass and American History

Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering socially and historically relevant short articles, picture essays, and links that will guide the reader interested in knowing more. To go along with this year's Black History Month theme "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas," we examine the life of Frederick Douglass, whose rise from slavery to freedom to the heights of influence and power in his own time and beyond, exemplifies this theme more dramatically than any other man or woman in American history.

Featured Essay

  • Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom and Beyond

    Frederick Douglass spent twenty years as a slave and nearly nine years as a fugitive slave. By the time of his death in 1895 he attained international fame as an abolitionist, editor, orator, statesman, and the author of three autobiographies that became classics of the slave narrative tradition. Douglass lived through the Civil War and Emancipation and Reconstruction and helped interpret the meaning of those events. He fought for black civil rights and fought against the loss of those rights during Reconstruction and later, and he supported women's rights and woman's suffrage long before either was achieved.

    Even so, Douglass's work did not begin to receive widespread attention until the flowering of African American history and culture in the 1960s, and a greatly increased attention to slavery. Today Douglass is a towering figure in American history textbooks, his autobiographies continue to be studied by historians and literature scholars alike, and his speeches and other writings are widely known. Along with Martin Luther King Jr. and W. E. B. Du Bois in the twentieth century and Harriet Tubman in the nineteenth, Douglass is an iconic figure in America’s pantheon of African American heroes. The historian L. Diane Barnes discusses Douglass's life and his continuing relevance for Americans today.

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Photo Essay

  • Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches (1938). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

    Frederick Douglass

    In honor of the 2007 theme for Black History Month, "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas," we focus on Frederick Douglass, showing the progress and discussing the details of his life through images and text. As discussed by L. Diane Barnes in her feature essay, the social distance Douglass traveled during his lifetime continues to be a model for Americans today. In fact, the words, images, and example of Douglass abound in history and popular culture, and his thoughts about the great struggles for human rights that led to the Civil War remain especially relevant in the present, during a time of uncertainty and war, when civil liberties at home and human rights abroad are being suppressed: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." View photo essay

Featured Articles

The Oxford African American Studies Center contains more than 50 articles detailing Frederick Douglass, his life and times. There are five different biographies of Douglass ranging from 1000 words to 13,000 words, each with a unique focus. Other articles that deal specifically with Douglass's life or more generally with the history of the times in which he lived include the entries listed below. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)

Subject Entries