History's most memorable figures appear to live more than one lifetime to accomplish all that made them great. So it was with Frederick Douglass.
Douglass described in his autobiography how he assumed "several lives in one. First, the life of slavery; secondly, the life of a fugitive from slavery; thirdly, the life of comparative freedom; fourthly, the life of conflict and battle; and fifthly, the life of victory, if not complete, at least assured."
Presentations and analysis about his multiple lives and their layers of meaning will converge at the University of Rochester this winter and spring. An academic conference organized by the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies is set for March 27 to 29, and an exhibition of letters, books, and other Douglass documents and artifacts from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is now on display.
For 25 years, the famous abolitionist and publisher lived and worked in Rochester, the home of his anti-slavery newspaper, North Star. "We aim to re-kindle and stimulate new interest in the life and works of Frederick Douglass," explains Larry E. Hudson, Jr., director of the Frederick Douglass Institute and associate professor of history. "We do not wish to simply praise Douglass. We want to de-mythologize him and attempt to get to know the man who contributed so much to Rochester, and the nation."
The upcoming conference, titled "The Public Life and Works of Frederick Douglass," will examine Douglass's 19th-century world of cultural and political reform through talks and discussions by the nation's leading Douglass scholars. The conference is sponsored by the Frederick Douglass Institute, the Rochester-Monroe County Freedom Trail Commission, and Howard University. It is the first of two interdisciplinary conferences on Douglass this year; the second will be held in November at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Douglass lived the later part of his life.
The exhibition, called "The Several Lives of Frederick Douglass," presents important materials and images related to Douglass (1818-1895), including two underground railroad passes penned by him and even a lock of his hair. It is free and open to the public in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in Rush Rhees Library. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, through May 10.
Web access to rare materials related to Douglass is being expanded dramatically in the next few years. With the assistance of a recent grant from the Xerox Corp., items in the collections of the University of Rochester Libraries and other area libraries will be digitized and available online. The project was initiated in 2001 when undergraduate students began transcribing Douglass's letters and scanning the documents under the direction of archivists and librarians.
"The Xerox project engages undergraduates in the use of primary sources and produces a digital database available to the public that will expand access to these wonderful letters and documents," says Ronald F. Dow, the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of River Campus Libraries.
As a companion event to the Frederick Douglass conference, the exhibition in Rush Rhees Library contains a selection from the more than 100 Douglass letters in the University collection. On display, for example, is the letter he wrote to anti-slavery supporter and friend Amy Post on Oct. 28, 1847, telling her about his move to Rochester to begin publishing his newspaper. A very rare printed advertisement for the newspaper with notes written on the back by Post during the 1848 Rochester women's rights convention is on view as well as the first book that Douglass purchased after his escape from slavery.
At the University, the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies was established in 1986 to promote the development of African and African-American studies in undergraduate and graduate education and through advanced research. In fall 2002, a new undergraduate major in African and African-American Studies was approved. The major is administered by the institute and provides an interdisciplinary program that integrates the social sciences and the humanities.
All events related to the Douglass conference are open to the public. Sessions on Thursday evening, March 27, and Friday, March 28, will be held at the University. Saturday's activities will take place at the Four Points Sheridan in downtown Rochester. Luncheon and dinner programs will require tickets, which can be purchased in advance. For more information, check the Frederick Douglass Institute's Web page and register online at www.rochester.edu/College/AAS/newaas/ or call the institute at (585) 275-7235.