Frederick Douglass Documents, Newly Acquired By Yale, Reveal ‘Hope For The Country’

For years, researchers interested in the life of Frederick Douglass have traveled to a retired surgeon’s dining room table in Savannah, Ga., to pore over his private collection of newspaper clippings, manuscripts and letters. Dr. Walter O. Evans’ collection is the largest known on the abolitionist and politician who was formerly enslaved. It’s one that Evans has been working on for decades.

“It consists of a great deal of personal material from the Douglass family — letters that he wrote to his sons and to various other people,” Evans tells NPR.

Earlier this month, the Beinecke Library at Yale University announced it had acquired the collection — which includes Douglass’ 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech with his own handwritten annotations.

Much of Evans’ collection is contained in nine scrapbooks put together by Douglass’ three sons in the years after the Civil War.

Melissa Barton, a curator at Yale, notes that the scrapbooks are typical of the 19th century. “They’re kind of tracking the notable kind of high points of someone’s life through the ephemera and other material that they’re interacting with in print,” she says.

Barton says the collection reveals a lot about the Douglass family’s engagement with their father’s life and legacy. And she says that legacy is particularly important right now.

“Frederick Douglass probably should never go out of style,” Barton says. “Obviously this year, with the way that Black Lives Matter is having this moment, Douglass has maybe been more on a lot of people’s minds. We have long recognized him as being a deservedly important, celebrated American figure.”

Similarly, Evans notes that people have taken a greater interest in Douglass recently.

“You can’t just say he was an editor or just an abolitionist or just a politician because he was just so much more than that,” he says.

Evans acquired Douglass’ papers over 30 years ago — and added a few items over the years. The documents were a key source in David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Yale University is planning to make the collection digital, so people can learn more online about Douglass’ life. That was important to the man who is handing over these artifacts.

“Scholars, researchers, students and the world should have access to it,” Evans says.

For him, Douglass sets an example for the nation. “His legacy is that this country was built on a certain ideal, which it has never lived up to,” he says. “And I think what you’ll find in this collection of material is that he had hope, he had hope for the country.”

Milton Guevara produced, and Denise Couture and Miranda Kennedy edited this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn edited it for the Web.

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