Frederick Douglass’ Legacy Lives On in West Harlem
By K. T. |
There are several renowned monuments throughout the United States that honor Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became one of the country’s most unforgettable African-American leaders. Recently, I had the privilege to visit the memorial located on West 110th Street and 8th Avenue (Central Park West and Frederick Douglass Boulevard) in New York City. The best part about it? It’s absolutely free to admire! The prominent statue, standing eight-feet tall, made me feel tiny as I stood proudly beside it during my visit. One of the first things I noticed was the engraved words on the pavement taken from the masthead of the abolitionist newspaper that Douglass edited, The North Star: “Right is of no sex—truth is of no color. God is the father of us all, and we are all Brethren.” Equality is something Douglass fought for throughout his life.
Sculpted by Gabriel Koren and Algernon Miller, the statue is made entirely of bronze and granite, which gives it a dark gray color. The monument was inaugurated in December 2005, and it still appears in great condition. There are seating options that appear as blocks surrounding the statue. Among the seats, you can find a brilliant quote said by the man himself. The statue is located outside of Central Park in the center of a traffic circle. Douglass stands facing the traffic, so drivers and passengers can check him out. I tried my best to impersonate Douglass’ standing pose. He stands with confidence, slightly bending his right leg while keeping his left leg straight. His facial expression appears to be neutral as if he demands to be taken seriously. He is dressed professionally with what appears to be a nice bow-tie.
Douglass shares his life experiences in his detailed autobiography entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. His autobiography gives us the inside scoop of what his life was like and some of the obstacles he had to overcome. The autobiography begins with his birthplace in Tuckahoe, Maryland, where he was born into slavery. Douglass could hardly recall any happy events during his early childhood. At such an early age, he began to question why he did not have some of the same entitlements as the white children. The age descriptions Douglass mentions in his autobiography are estimates because slaves were not knowledgeable of their age. He mentions that he could not recall to have met any slave who knew the date of his or her birth.
Douglass was disconnected from his mother at a very young age and never knew who his father was, except for the fact he was a white man. Lacking a permanent home as a child, he found himself shifting between different masters and traveling to different places. He witnessed events that no child should ever have to see and describes many of the bad times he lived through in his autobiography: the anxiety, the sounds of torture, beatings, and the sight of blood were engraved into his memory. Douglass goes into depth describing the plantations, whippings, lack of food, and the many near-death experiences he faced. The scars from severe whippings remained on his body. Slaves were dehumanized and were considered in the same categories as horses, pigs, and sheep. His masters were extremely cruel, but with luck, he also met a few who were less brutal. Due to a man named Mr. Wilson, he had his first encounter with learning how to read and write. Mr. Wilson provided a Sabbath school so that slaves would become familiar with the New Testament. It was banned shortly thereafter.
Douglass also includes some of the better days he experienced in his autobiography. In Baltimore, he regained some type of hope, and his life took a shift towards finding happiness. He writes, “Going to Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind of providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors” (944). Before escaping to the North, Douglass held his own Sabbath school to teach his fellow slaves how to read. It was one of his proudest moments to be able to teach and share his knowledge. He write, “I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race” (967). There was no doubt that he had the desire to empower and help people.
Eventually, on September 3rd, 1838, Douglass made his escape to freedom. He reached New York, where he met a man named Mr. David Ruggles, who was a black journalist and abolitionist. Mr. Ruggles became a huge aid to Douglass, and Douglass was fortunate enough to meet several other people who helped him reach New Bedford, Massachusetts. One of these helpful people was Nathan Johnson, who suggested Douglass’ last name. Becoming a licensed preacher within a Church and becoming a leader in the anti-slavery movement were some of his accomplishments in the North.
Douglass reflected on how surreal it felt to be able to sit peacefully in his home as a free man writing his autobiography. He wrote it, he said, “sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system” (987). Like his famous autobiography, the Frederick Douglass Monument in New York is special because it commemorates the moment Douglass became a free man by stepping foot onto New York soil for the first time. Ready to take on a new world, he recalls his first impressions in the city: “In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who has escaped a den of hungry lions” (979). If Frederick Douglass were alive today, he would proud to know we have had a black president in office for two terms now. Douglass is resting in paradise now, but his legacy will continue to live on.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, American Literature. Nina Baym. 7th Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 931-990 Print
NYC Resources. “Frederick Douglass Memorial.” Nycgovparks.org. Web 24 May 2016.