David W. Blight wrote his first book about Frederick Douglass 30 years ago and never dreamed there would be another—let alone a full biography.
However, “some lives are, in a way, made for biography,” Blight said during a recent interview.
Over the years, much of Blight’s work intersected with that of Douglass (1818–1895), a larger-than-life historical figure who escaped from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to rise to prominence as a civil rights leader. Douglass was considered an eloquent writer and orator whose words advocated for the abolishment of slavery and equality for all.
Blight—a renowned historian, professor and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University—has written or edited a dozen books and garnered numerous accolades.
But it wasn’t until a visit to Savannah, Ga., 12 years ago that he felt compelled to write a book that would become what’s now considered the definitive biography of Douglass. It’s all thanks to a man named Walter Evans, who Blight met during that visit. A historical artifact collector, Evans spread a treasure trove of information about Douglass across his dining room table for Blight to examine.
“I realized this was an, ‘Oh my God moment,’” Blight recalled. “At the core of this collection were nine Douglass family scrapbooks kept by his sons during the last third of Douglass’ life…They were stunning in their scale.”
Blight visited Evans’ dining room table as often as he could for about six years, pouring over the previously undiscovered material. At the beginning, he used a flip phone to take photos and transcribe hundreds of pages of information. It took him another six years to write “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” which earned him the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in history.
Area history and book lovers have the opportunity to hear and meet Blight on Feb. 1 during an appearance at Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore. Alex Brubaker, the bookstore’s manager, calls Blight’s appearance an “exciting kickoff to Black History Month” and one of the highlights of the bookstore’s 2020 calendar.
“We’re such fierce advocates for good books and stories here at the Scholar, but this one stands out as a must-see event,” Brubaker said. “There’s so much to learn from the past to help illuminate our present conditions, and to have one of our current leading historians tackle such a renowned American figure—it feels extra significant when we look out across our 2020 event series.”
Douglass was known for expressing his rage with words rather than physical violence, Blight said. And the Bible had a “profound effect” on Douglass’ words, which in turn, inspired Blight’s choice of book title.
“I always felt like Douglass had a prophetic voice; he was a wielder of words,” said Blight. “‘Prophet’ means he was a voice in the 19th century, a voice like no other about America’s greatest problems—Civil War, slavery and the transformation of our Constitution.”
Blight was quick to point out, that for all his attributes, Douglass also had his flaws, including a dysfunctional family.
“I’m not trying to suggest he had it all figured out,” said Blight, “But he often faced what we don’t want to face—that’s the role of a prophet.”
Blight stressed that the book, though more than 900 pages long, is written for a general audience, for “good history and story—what all biographies should do.”
The Rev. Dr. David T. Miller, pastor of Harrisburg’s oldest African American congregation, Wesley Union African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, said he is “definitely elated” about Blight’s visit to Harrisburg.
Miller has read and studied countless sermons and speeches written by Douglass, who was an ordained minister within the A.M.E. Zion Church.
“When you look at the sermons he wrote, to encourage and inspire individuals, Douglass would say, ‘The way we are being treated is not right, but there is a way to address it…[channeling] being mad and upset into what is called righteous indignation,’” Miller said.
Douglass’ words are enduring, Miller said, because they encouraged Americans to work collectively to tackle societal issues, especially by focusing on youth.
“The same things that resounded then still make sense today,” Miller said, citing familiar Douglass quotes: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” and, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Douglass actually spoke in Harrisburg several times, according to Lenwood Sloan, longtime Harrisburg area community activist. One of those appearances occurred in 1859 at the invitation of abolitionist Dr. William Rutherford whose family owned farms—in what is now Allison Hill—that served as stations on the Underground Railroad as escaped slaves made their way north.
“In 1859, we were at the edge of the century moving into the crisis that would become the Civil War,” said Sloan, who has portrayed Douglass.
The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act created a bounty office at 3rd and Walnut streets, where the post office is today. Douglass spoke a block away, at 4th and Walnut streets, a location that now is the proposed site of the Commonwealth Monument Project. That bronze monument, honoring four prominent Harrisburg abolitionists and suffragists, is slated to be unveiled on June 15.
“We have records of Douglass coming back to Harrisburg in 1882 to speak about the safety of voters, and this is a conversation we’re still having today about suppression of voters and the struggle to preserve the safety of our citizenship,” said Sloan.
Many of Douglass’ words reach across the decades.
“‘As long as heaven allows…I will use my voice, my pen, or my vote’ is a quote I use often because it’s timeless,” Blight said. “We all have a voice and a vote, and some of us have a pen. That’s all Douglass ever had. He had no other form of power.”
David W. Blight will appear on Feb. 1, 5 to 7 p.m., at Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, see midtownscholar.com.