In 2006, historian David Blight had just given a talk about Frederick Douglass in Savannah, Georgia, when he was introduced to Walter Evans, a retired surgeon and collector. Dr. Evans invited him to stop by the house and see his Douglass collection. Dr. Blight was cautiously intrigued.
But later, when Dr. Evans began placing some carefully bounced scrapbooks on his dining room table, he was surprised to see page after page of newspaper clippings, letters, and personal mementos of the runaway slave who became one of the most famous men of the 19th century. America century.
They were the Douglass family scrapbooks, carefully assembled and annotated by Douglass’ children, and almost unknown to scholars.
“I was amazed,” Dr. Blight recalled in an interview. “I’m not even sure I know what I was seeing at first.”
Dr. Evans put it a little more vividly. “I could see David’s head exploding,” he said.
The treasure became a hotbed for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of the Pulitzer Prize winner “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Liberty.” And now, it has been purchased by the Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it will be housed alongside materials from African-American artists, writers, and activists in their James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.
Interest in Douglass (along with prices for Douglass materials) has increased in recent years, in part due to Dr. Blight’s biography, which is being adapted for the Netflix screen by the production company of Barack and Michelle Obama. Melissa Barton, Beinecke’s American prose and poetry curator, rated Dr. Evans’ collection as the most important that is known to have remained in private hands.
“Every few years, you will see small groups of Douglass letters at auction,” he said. “But something of this size and scope is truly unheard of.”
The collection includes manuscripts or typescripts of some of Douglass’s most famous prayers, including his 1852 speech “What a Slave is the Fourth of July” and his 1879 eulogy for the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, a mentor with whom then broke.
There are also photographs, account books, ephemera, and letters, including more than 40, from his son Lewis to Lewis’s wife, Amelia, some written while he was in front with the famous Massachusetts 54th, one of the first black regiments in fight in the Civil War.
But perhaps the richest and most revealing articles, Dr. Blight said, are family scrapbooks, which track both Douglass’s extensive public career in the post-war years and his complicated and sometimes scandalous private life.
“If people know something about Douglass, they know young Douglass, the heroic ex-slave who escapes and becomes a spectacular speaker,” said Dr. Blight. But this is a window into old Douglass: the patriarch, the former radical outsider who is now a kind of political insider. We have never heard much about that Douglass.
During a decade of working on biography, Dr. Blight made periodic visits to Dr. Evans ‘dining room, which became an informal reading room for him and other scholars who learned of Dr. Evans’ collections, which also include material related to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Dr. Evans, also a leading collector of African American art, purchased most of the Douglass collection in the 1980s from a dealer. He described his historic home in Savannah as filled with approximately 100,000 rare books and manuscripts that even his wife never entered some rooms.
On one visit, after Dr. Blight remembered meeting Jacob Lawrence, Dr. Evans took him to a closet where the artist’s printed series “The Legend of John Brown” was stacked against a wall. In another, Dr. Blight mentioned an earlier book project related to James Baldwin.
“Walter said, ‘Oh Jimmy? Go back to the TV room on the right. I have about 100 letters from Baldwin, ”he said.
The Beinecke acquired the Baldwin letters in 2013. The Douglass acquisition, Dr. Blight said, was the result of “a long courtship” (with no shortage of suitors, Dr. Evans noted).
Beinecke, citing library policy, would not disclose any financial terms for the Douglass acquisition. But the library noted that it was also receiving nearly 200 drawings by pioneering 20th-century African-American political cartoonist Oliver Wendell Harrington from Dr. Evans.
The curatorial Dr. Barton said the scrapbooks, made during the heyday of the 19th century scrapbooking, are particularly rich and rare, giving insight not only into Douglass’ private and public life, but the way she was cured by her family. “His self-awareness about his role in the story is fascinating,” he said.
In one, letters from prominent figures such as Senator Charles Sumner, African-American abolitionist Martin Delaney, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier are pasted. There are also handwritten personal narratives by two of her children, including one called “Some Incidents from Frederick Douglass’s Home Life. They offer information not only about Douglass,” said Dr. Blight, but also about his 44-year marriage to Anna. Murray, a free black woman who helped him escape slavery in 1838.
Thousands of newspaper clippings record his public career, which included serving as Consul General for Haiti and as Superintendent of Washington, DC. But scrapbooks don’t just record their triumphs. They also record public interest in the most difficult parts of his life as patriarch of a large and sometimes difficult extended clan: once “Washington’s first black family,” as Dr. Blight put it.
A scrapbook is primarily devoted to public controversy over his second marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years her junior. Other clippings document his sometimes intense rivalries with other black leaders like John Mercer Langston.
In 1888, Douglass opposed Langston’s attempt to become Virginia’s first black congressman, arguing that he was insufficiently loyal to the Republican Party. Instead, he supported Langston’s white opponent, a former Confederate, prompting an editorial writer to accuse Douglass of “a vain race sacrifice for the party fetish and personal pique.”
“Man, the DC press took care of all of that,” said Dr. Blight. “And if one of your children gets into bankruptcy, that’s also there.”
Douglass, who died in 1895, was the most photographed American of the 19th century, but his voice was never recorded. Still, it is his highest oratory that endures most vividly.
As it has in recent years, the Beinecke will mark July 4 with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and Douglass’ famous July 4, 1852 prayer. (This year, it will be online). Douglass begins with a heartbreaking critique of American hypocrisy before offering his white audience a glimpse of an America that could still live up to its ideals.
“He rips the throats out of his audience, before lifting them up at the end,” said Dr. Blight. “He says’ It is not too late. Your nation is still young, still malleable. It is still possible to save yourself.”