Frederick Douglass's Scottish connections

28 October 2020
Colin Reilly marks Black History Month with a look at the Glasgow connections of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was a social reformer and an important figure in the abolition movement. He had a quite remarkable life, born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 he made a daring escape in 1838 by hiding on a freight train. After his escape he went to live in Massachusetts where he became active in the abolition movement.

He was renowned for his eloquent and powerful speeches; his skilful oration dismantled many people's stereotypes that black people were intellectually inferior. 

Frederick Douglass in the UK

In 1845 Douglass set sail from the United States to tour the British Isles, in part to raise funds to support abolition in the US but also to escape potential recapture by his former “owner”.

He arrived in Scotland in 1846 and gave speeches across the country that were incredibly popular. He helped create a wave of protest against the recently founded Free Church of Scotland.

Following its split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 the Free Church had accepted over £3,000 in donations from American enslavers. Douglass criticised this “blood-stained money” and denounced the church as unchristian. His campaign against the church had the slogan “Send back the money” and was commemorated in poems and songs of the day.

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While in Scotland Douglass visited the birthplace of Robert Burns and met his sister. He regularly recited Burns’ poetry during his speeches in Scotland.

Douglass was also a strong believer in women's rights and their right to vote, although there was some controversy over his support of the 15th Amendment – which granted the vote to black men but not to any women – he continued to support Universal Suffrage all his life. 

Douglass understood the power of imagery, photography was still a relatively young medium at the time but he used it to full effect. He was the most photographed American in the 19th century, he used photographs as both a political tool and as a way to counter racist caricatures. His stern appearance in photographs is extremely striking; he often looks directly at the camera, confronting the viewer.

Click here for the full Black History Month series from Colin Reilly at No Lesser Panda.