Massachusetts unveils bust of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Feb 14, 2024, 12:56 PM

BOSTON (AP) — A bust of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was unveiled in the Massachusetts Senate Chamber on Wednesday, the first bust of an African American to be permanently added to the Massachusetts Statehouse.

It’s also the first bust to be added to the Senate Chamber in more than 125 years.

Senate President Karen Spilka emphasized the ties that Douglass — who lived for a time in the state and delivered speeches in the Senate chamber and at Boston’s Faneuil Hall — had to Massachusetts.

“Though he was not born here, in Massachusetts we like to call Frederick Douglass one of our own,” she said. “He came to our state after escaping enslavement. This is where he wanted to come.”

Douglass also first heard news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation while in Boston, she said.

With the bust, Douglass takes his place as a founding father in the chamber and offers some balance in a Statehouse which honors people who are predominantly white, leaving out the stories of countless people of color, Spilka said.

Noelle Trent, president of the Museum of African American History in Boston, also emphasized the connections Douglass had to the state.

“It is here where he would write his groundbreaking book the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,’” she said. “It is here where he would begin his career as one of the most renowned orators of the 19th century.”

Senate leaders chose February 14 to unveil the bust. With the true date of his birth unknown, Douglass opted to celebrate February 14 as his birthday. A quote by Douglass – “Truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail” – adorns one wall of the chamber.

Other states have recognized Douglass.

In 2020, Chicago renamed a sprawling park on the city’s West Side after Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray-Douglass. Earlier that year, county lawmakers voted to rename the airport in Rochester, New York, after Douglass. Also in 2020, Maryland unveiled bronze statues of Douglass and Harriet Tubman in the Maryland State House.

Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in February 1818. His mother died when he was young and he never knew his father. Barred from attending school, Douglass taught himself to read and, in 1838, dressed as a sailor and with the help of a freed Black woman, boarded a train and fled north to New York City.

Fearing human traffickers, Douglass, now married to Anna Murray, fled again to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he gained a reputation as an orator speaking out against slavery with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Abolitionists ultimately purchased his freedom, and the family settled in Rochester, New York.

In 1845 in Boston, Douglass published his experiences as an enslaved person in his first autobiography, which became a bestseller.

He also embraced the women’s rights movement, helped formerly enslaved people fleeing to freedom with the Underground Railroad, and bought a printing press so he could run his own newspaper, The North Star.

In 1855, he published his second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom.”

During the Civil War, Douglass recruited Black men to fight for the Union, including two of his sons who served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. A memorial to the famed Civil War unit made up of Black soldiers is located directly across the street from the Massachusetts Statehouse.

He met with Lincoln to press for equal pay and treatment for Black troops and pushed to ensure that formerly enslaved people were guaranteed the rights of American citizens during Reconstruction.

He also served in high-ranking federal appointments, including consul general to Haiti from 1889-1891.

Douglass died from a heart attack on Feb. 20, 1895, at age 77.

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Massachusetts unveils bust of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass