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Douglass
Hillsdale College owns the photo of Fred­erick Dou­glass taken on Howell Street during his visit to the school in 1863. Hillsdale Library Archives | Courtesy

About 150 years ago, when the popular pic­tures of African-Amer­icans por­trayed them as savages, black abo­li­tionist Fred­erick Dou­glass used pho­tog­raphy to transform their image. And though Dou­glass shared the 19th century with legends like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Walt Whitman, Harvard his­torian John Stauffer said Dou­glass sur­passed them all in at least one cat­egory: he was the most pho­tographed American of those 100 years.
In a 2015 illus­trated biog­raphy “Pic­turing Fred­erick Dou­glass,” his­to­rians Stauffer and Zoe Trodd explain Dou­glass’ impact on the abo­li­tionist movement with his pio­neering use of pho­tog­raphy. To honor Dou­glass’ accom­plish­ments and the legacy of his two speeches on Hillsdale’s campus, the Liberty Walk will soon add a statue of the acclaimed orator.
But that isn’t the only important piece of Dou­glass history that Hillsdale holds.
Page 20 of “Pic­turing Fred­erick Dou­glass,” dis­plays a rare, full-length photo of him, which was taken nearby on Howell Street by local Hillsdale pho­tog­raphy firm owned by Edwin Burke Ives and Reuben L. Andrews. This was the same day that Dou­glass gave a speech in Hillsdale’s chapel called “Truth and Error.”
“Properly speaking, there was no such thing as new truth. Error might be old or new; but truth was as old as the uni­verse, based upon a sure foun­dation, and could not be over­thrown,”
Dou­glass said, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. “A fatal blow had at last been struck at the root of the gigantic evil. The President’s procla­mation had given the slaves the legal right to liberty. Now they could obtain their per­sonal freedom without tram­pling upon civil laws.”
Trodd told the Col­legian this picture is important for a number of reasons, including the timing that earned it the title of “Eman­ci­pation Procla­mation photo.” Also, it is one of the only existing full-length photos of Dou­glass, and he strikes a rarely seen pose with his fists clenched. Finally, he seldom used props, but the corner of a thick book rests atop a table almost touching Dou­glass’ elbow, which Trodd said “has to be a statement.”
“Here, he has incredibly con­fident body lan­guage, and he was very careful with props, so his choice to have a book says some­thing sig­nif­icant,” Trodd said. “He never did any­thing that wasn’t very careful and delib­erate.”
Aside from the impor­tance these details give the photo, Trodd said she gained a per­sonal affection for the photo, since she received it from Dou­glass’ descendant.
She spent years trav­eling any­where with a slight chance of having a Dou­glass pho­to­graph, and this one fell into her lap while at a con­ference several years ago.
Kenneth B. Morris Jr., the great-great-great-grandson of Dou­glass (as well as the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Wash­ington), also spoke at the con­ference. Afterward, Trodd showed him the Dou­glass photos she’d col­lected, and Morris told her that she was missing a really important one.
“It was one of those great moments of my life, huddled outside the con­ference, showing him the photos and watching him respond and then having him show me this moving one,” Trodd said. “It was one of those moments where you’re grateful to be a his­torian.”
Morris said a Hillsdale alumnus told him about the photo, and he liked it so much that he made it his computer’s back­ground picture.
“He looks really mag­nif­icent — very regal and grand — by the way he’s sitting and dressed and the relaxed look on his face,” Morris told the Col­legian. “As the leader of the abo­li­tionist movement, who was leading his brethren very calmly and cooly, it’s so neat that he could just sit there with every­thing going on and present himself as somebody not fearing what’s about to happen.”
In the book’s afterword, Morris iden­tifies this as his “all-time favorite picture” of Dou­glass, saying, “There has never been a cooler picture taken of my great ancestor. When I look at this pho­to­graph, all I can do is bow down and say, ‘You are the Man!’”
Dou­glass’ ability to invoke these sen­ti­ments of con­fi­dence, courage, and even awe, con­tributed to the power pho­tog­raphy gave him in shaping people’s con­ception of African-Amer­icans.
Just three years after Dou­glass escaped from slavery and in photography’s infant days, “he had the fore­sight to under­stand that the new medium would help his (abo­li­tionist) argument,” Morris said. Dou­glass not only used pho­tog­raphy to portray himself as a leader, but also he wrote essays and gave lec­tures on its use­fulness.
“He was really the first person who helped shape the public con­sciousness by pre­senting the antithesis of what people thought about slaves or enslaved Africans. People believed they were savages, so Fred­erick under­stood he could shatter that notion by pre­senting himself as a man and someone worthy of cit­i­zenship and freedom.”
Morris said he often explains the sig­nif­i­cance of Dou­glass’ manip­u­lation of pho­tog­raphy by using a con­tem­porary example. “If he were alive today, he would have a million Twitter fol­lowers,” Morris said.
Trodd added that Dou­glass’ moti­vation to be cap­tured by pho­tog­ra­phers was not vain. Instead, it rep­re­sents the “first great visual battle of American history,” as his dig­nified image was one of the only weapons to combat white supremacist imagery, car­toons, sketches, and car­i­ca­tures in his day.
“It might not seem radical to us,” Trodd said, “but for the 19th century white south­erner to see these pho­tographs and see Dou­glass so self-pos­sessed and a gen­tleman was a shocking thing to them — and he knew that.”