Social media had a lot to say after President Donald Trump kicked off Black History Month on Wednesday with comments about Frederick Douglass and other prominent African-Americans at the White House.
Part of the president’s remarks: “I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact.”
Twitter users questioned his knowledge of the subject and some late night talk shows poked fun, saying he spoke of the famous abolitionist as if he were still alive.
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Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American Studies at Duke University and founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship said there’s a bigger issue than comments made by Trump: a lack of public awareness about black history.
“The bigger issue, is that so many white Americans don’t know a lot about Frederick Douglass and more broadly about black history. That is not on Trump, that is an indictment of what education in America looks like. It’s an extended failure to tell the real story,” Neal said.
“Not only is this someone who survived slavery, but so much of the American process is the freedom to tell your story. That is why Frederick Douglass is so important.”
So for anyone who needs a refresher on Douglass and why he is considered to be the most important African-American figure of the 19th century, here are a few facts. For more, see UNC’s Documenting the American South, BlackPast.Org and the Library of Congress.
1. He changed his name.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he adopted his surname Douglass from The Lady of Lake, the poem by Sir Walter Scott.
2. He was a powerful orator and author.
His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) are regarded as the finest examples of the slave narrative.
3. He did not know his birth date or birth year
Douglass was born a slave and did not know his exact birthday. He decided to celebrate his birthday on Feb. 14 every year. It is thought that Douglass was born to a slave and her white slave master. He died in 1895.
4. He was a newspaper editor and publisher
He served as publisher of The New National Era. The abolitionist newspaper ran from 1847-1860 and was published weekly in Washington, D.C. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared as a serial in The New National Era.
5. He was president of Freedman’s Bank. It didn’t go well.
The bank was incorporated in 1865. Its mission was to aid in the transition for slaves on the road to freedom. The bank’s headquarters moved to Washington in 1868 . A large fraud scheme among upper management nearly destroyed the bank. Douglass, who had recently been elected president in 1874, decided to donate tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in hopes of saving the bank. Despite asking for government involvement, the bank went belly up in 1874 and historians say it left many African-Americans with a cynical view of banking.
6. He married a white woman after his first wife died
Helen Pitts was Douglass’ white former secretary. According to one biographical account, the marriage helped make Douglass one of the South’s “most famous examples of the region’s mixed racial heritage.” His first wife, Anna Murray, followed him out of slavery. They had five children before she died in 1838. At 62, he remarried.