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Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of the 19th century

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Renowned American abolitionist, orator, writer, statesman, and human rights advocate, Frederick Douglass was also, as the Library of Congress describes, a “firm believer in the power of pictures.”

“Douglass saw photography’s value as a social leveler, as it became increasingly affordable to ordinary people in the last half of the 19th century. In ‘Pictures and Progress‘ Douglass remarked: β€œThe humbled servant girl whose income is but a few shillings per week may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and court royalty…” He noted that photo studios could be found in even the smallest towns.'”

In this video from Black History in Two Minutes (or so), Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. shares how Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved at birth in Maryland and, with the help of Anna Murray, freed through an 1839 escape to New York City, “hoped to utilize his imagery to humanize black people β€” enslaved and free β€” at home and abroad.”

Young Frederick Douglass
From The New Republic:

“He was a theorist of the technology and a student of its social impact, one of the first to consider the fixed image as a public relations instrument.”

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This goal, starting with a humble daguerreotype taken in 1841 after he, as WBUR explains in 2016, reclaimed his stolen freedom, eventually made him the most photographed American of the 19th century:

“…a revolutionary form, the daguerreotype was introduced in 1839, just a year after Douglass escaped from slavery. As the art of picture-taking grew, the well-traveled Douglass was often its willing subject β€” from Boston and New Bedford, to Chicago and Washington, D.C. Even in that first palm-sized photograph, Douglass seemed to fully understand the power of a single image.”

Frederick Douglass

“With additional commentary from Deborah Willis of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, John Stauffer of Harvard University, Rhae Lynn Barnes of Princeton University, and David Blight β€” we celebrate the legacy of Frederick Douglass who advocated for freedom and equality until his passing in 1895.”

Black History in Two Minutes (or so) is an award-winning series of concise, fact-filled stories from United States history. Co-produced with Gates, the series was launched by tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Robert F. Smith β€œto help preserve the African American experience and democratize online learning sources.”

Find more American history on their YouTube channel, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and at their site.

Watch these related videos next:
β€’Β Rare 1920s films of All-Black Towns β€œLiving the American Dream,” filmed by Solomon Sir Jones
β€’Β Photography, from camera obscura to camera phone
β€’Β Henry Fox Talbot, the First Photographs, and the Pioneers of Photography
β€’Β Conservation of an 1842 daguerreotype, one of the oldest photographs at MoMA
β€’Β Henrietta Lacks: The β€˜immortal’ cells that changed the world
β€’Β The Raised Fist Afro Comb: Untold’s Museum of Artifacts That Made America

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