Frederick Douglass returned to Hillsdale College permanently on Friday.
College President Larry Arnn unveiled the “fierce,” 7‑foot-tall bronze statue of the famous freed slave and abolitionist orator — who spoke at the college on Jan. 21, 1863 — to a standing ovation of around 300 college students, staff, faculty, and visitors packed into Kresge Plaza between Lane and Kendall halls.
“We think of him as a wrathful man too much,” Arnn said. “Really, he was a persuasive, thinking, talking man…[The statue] shows the emotion that drove that man, and that emotion was not hate. That emotion was love.”
The sculpture depicts Douglass at the height of his oratory prowess around the age of 43, about the time he visited Hillsdale the first time. Standing with one step forward in a power position, Douglass conveys the force he used in his words, sculptor Bruce Wolfe said.
“I hope people have some sort of reality,” Wolfe said. “He had a certain amount of ferocity to him, but it looked like he knew who he was. He looked like he knew what he could contribute, and he walked a very narrow line between going way beyond and not going far enough, and that’s a hard one to get.”
In homage to his writing and speaking abilities, Douglass also holds a book — one of his three autobiographies, according to Wolfe — in his arm.
Douglass faces the Alpha Kappa Phi Civil War memorial in the middle of the plaza, the first statue of the Liberty Walk which depicts a soldier representing the students who served and died in the war. The college also turned the statue of Abraham Lincoln, which stands across from Douglass, slightly to face the Civil War memorial.
“Frederick Douglass looks exactly at that soldier, the person who paid the price standing for all of us who must pay the price,” Arnn said. “It’s right, if you’re the former slave, to look at the soldier with resolve…[Lincoln] looks across at the soldier with solemnity, almost sadness, because, of course, he was the man that gave the command that led to the last full measure of devotion.”
Following the unveiling, Lucas Morel, professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, said the issues and ideas Douglass discussed remain in debate today. Morel questioned what Douglass would think of the country, with the outbreak of protests and violent incidences at colleges like the University of California, Berkeley and Middlebury College to prevent guests from speaking on campuses.
“Why this desperation to prevent the free discussion that Douglass argued was the key to the triumph of truth?” Morel said. “This likens to the insecurity slave-holding societies displayed as they censored the males, prohibited speeches and even sermons that argued for the equality of men and, therefore, the denial of slavery. Of all the deprivations Douglass attributed to slavery, the denial of an education ranked as the worst of slavery’s ills.”
Morel said in his education and understanding of America’s founding documents, Douglass found the path to freedom. Douglass argued against “racial pride” and special privileges to freed slaves, finding his identity in the American principle of equality of rights, Morel said.
“As we reflect upon this statue of Frederick Douglass, may his words and deeds serve as a guide for our own age where the American college is considered, it appears not to know how to cultivate a truly free mind or a responsible character,” Morel said. “In honoring Douglass, we honor the best America has to offer in service to human equality and our constitutional way of life.”
In 1863, a couple weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass spoke at Hillsdale for the women’s literary society in the college’s chapel on “Popular Error and Unpopular Truth.” He returned to the community on Sept. 27, 1888, to campaign for Benjamin Harrison’s presidential run.
Sophomore Katarina Bradford said she loves to learn about Hillsdale College’s history, noting it was the first college to prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, and sex in its charter.
“It’s wonderful that we’re honoring Frederick Douglass and the school is enduring this past as a symbolism of our freedom and fighting for humankind,” Bradford said.
Junior Victoria Watson said the installation brings her studies to light in a new way.
“We have presidents and Margaret Thatcher, but it’s nice to see Frederick Douglass, who is a very important historical figure,” Watson said. “We honor him in the classroom, but it’s nice to see the dedication to what we learn.”
Junior Nathan Lehman said he was impressed with the artistry of the sculpture with the details on Douglass’ jacket and the realism of his hair.
“It looks like you could reach out and touch it,” Lehman said.
Hillsdale College announced the project in 2014, the first statue since the completion of Ronald Reagan in 2011. It selected award-winning sculptor Bruce Wolfe, who also made Hillsdale’s Margaret Thatcher statue, from several artists in May 2015. The statue took about a year to complete, Wolfe said.
One of the challenges Wolfe said he faced was having to sculpt a person no longer alive. Although Douglass was the most photographed person of the 19th century (one famous image was taken in Hillsdale), he still needed a model. He found his Douglass in Joel Hart, who he met at his granddaughter’s soccer game. Hart’s daughter was on the opposing team.
“I said: ‘But I don’t look like Frederick Douglass,’” Hart said.
He said Wolfe explained to him how he resembled Douglass’ height and size for the body of the statue.
“I was like: ‘Shoot, I’m in,’” Hart said.
He said he hopes eventually to bring his wife and children to see it: “Everyone else will be seeing Frederick Douglass, but they’ll be seeing their dad with Frederick Douglass’ head.”
The statue was made in memory of Wanda Nagy. Her husband and the sculpture’s benefactor, James, said he originally was hoping to fund a tribute in honor of former President John Adams or his son at the college but chose to support the Douglass project after learning about it. His wife had supported a statue of Sojourner Truth, also an escaped slave and outspoken abolitionist, in their hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan.
“When we got married and she was in her mid-20s, she let me look into her purse, and she had a pocket Constitution that was…well-used; what 20-year-old do you know that walks around with a copy of the Constitution?” James Nagy said. “I think she probably would have liked this.”
Arnn said the Douglass statue should show the importance of the principle of equality for which Douglass fought and it should remind people of their own power.
“Frederick Douglass came here to remind us what a college is,” Arnn said. “It’s not just a proclamation of the evil of slavery. It’s a proclamation on the nature of man — of all of us, of what we can do, of what we’re made for.”