Born to an enslaved mother and unidentified white father in Talbot County, Maryland, in early 1818, he was first named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. In the first two decades of his life, he was given, lent, or hired out to various masters, but he also learned to read and write after a white woman taught him the alphabet. Reading books and newspapers gave him a new perspective on slavery that was doubtlessly reinforced by his time with an especially brutal "slave-breaker," and he dedicated himself to becoming a free man. After his first escape plan was discovered he was jailed for a time, but in 1838 he managed to reach New York. Less than two weeks later he married Anna Murray, a free black housekeeper whom he had met a year earlier at a debating club and who had helped in his escape. The couple, who would have five children, moved to Massachusetts and took the surname Douglass.
Douglass entered public life as a speaker at antislavery meetings. In 1845 he published "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," the first of his three autobiographies; it became a bestseller but also drew attention to his escape from slavery, making him a potential target for arrest and return to his former owner. He travelled and spoke for two years in Britain and Ireland, where supporters raised enough money to purchase his manumission, allowing him to return to the United States a legally free man. Settling in Rochester, New York, he began publishing The North Star, one of several abolitionist newspapers with which he would be involved. He also spoke in favor of women’s rights at the famous Seneca Falls convention, sheltered escaped slaves, and fought to end segregation in public schools.
During the Civil War, Douglass was a recruiter for the first African-American army regiment, which two of his sons joined. He met twice with President Lincoln, first about the pay and treatment of black soldiers and then to discuss the president’s desire to assist escaping slaves. After the Union victory and the abolition of slavery, he worked as a newspaper publisher and then as president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank. After his Rochester home was destroyed by fire (which Douglass believed resulted from arson), he moved his family to Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and purchased an estate that he would expand to twenty-four acres. The home, named Cedar Hill, has been designated the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. He was successively appointed a U.S. marshal and the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia.
Two years after his wife died in 1882, he married feminist Helen Pitts, his former secretary; the fact that she was white was controversial. In 1886–1887 the couple toured England, France, Italy, Egypt, and Greece. In 1888, he received a vote for president at the Republican National Convention, becoming the first African American ever so honored by a major party.
Frederick Douglass died at his home on February 20, 1895. He is buried in the family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester.
In 2006, Steven Weitzman was awarded the commission to create this statue of Frederick Douglass by the Washington, D.C., Commission for the Arts and Humanities. Citizens of the District of Columbia had chosen the subject of the statue through a voting process. In 2012, the Congress passed and the president signed P.L. 112-174, which directed the statue's placement in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall.
The statue, which is approximately seven feet tall, depicts Douglass as a man in his fifties in the act of giving a speech with a determined expression. He stands beside a lectern, leaning slightly forward and holding up a crushed sheaf of papers. His left hand firmly grasps the top of the lectern, where an inkwell and a quill pen sit in reference to his work as an author. He is dressed in a formal double-breasted frock coat, bow tie, and vest with a watch chain. The statue's pedestal is two and one-half feet high and is clad in pink marble. On the front and sides of the pedestal are these inscriptions:
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
The soul that is within me
no man can degrade.
—Quoted by Booker T. Washington
in Up from Slavery, 1901
If there is no struggle
there is no progress.
—Address on West India
This statue is not a part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. The Joint Committee on the Library approved the statue's acceptance into the joint art collection of the Capitol; the Congress approved its unveiling on June 19, 2013, a date also known as Juneteenth that commemorates the arrival in Galveston, Texas, of Union troops who brought the news that the Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery in the states then in rebellion.
Sculptor Steven Weitzman was born in New York City in 1952 and began his artistic career as an illustrator and painter. Since the 1980s he has worked increasingly in sculpture, with a significant accomplishment being a 1985 work dedicated on the grounds of the United Nations in New York City.