Role of a Lifetime

Frederick I. Douglas, who has reenacted speeches by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, says he is a descendant of same. And don't forget the barbecue sauce.
Frederick I. Douglas, who has reenacted speeches by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, says he is a descendant of same. And don't forget the barbecue sauce. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

The hat catches the eye. It lends an air of mystery to Frederick I. Douglas. Who wears a Panama hat these days?

When he strides through a District restaurant, he seems from another era, wearing the same kind of hat once worn by the 19th-century Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, publisher and statesman. Douglas is a Douglass reenactor, you see. In a life of performance art, he poses as the great man. Douglas, 60, makes appearances around the country in top hat and tails, orating in the high English and deep baritone for which Douglass was known. His wife, B.J., a singer, often performs with him, portraying the abolitionist's first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.

He has been captivating audiences for nearly two decades, with his Douglass-like visage, if not always with his actual oratory. His renown has taken him from elementary schools to the White House. At events in 2002 and 2005, President Bush introduced him as Frederick Douglass's descendant. After seeing a Douglas reenactment, Lynne Cheney in 2003 appointed him to her James Madison Book Award Advisory Council.

Douglas isn't just acting. For him, history is alive, and it courses through his veins. Douglas, of Baltimore, says he is a great-great-grandson of the great abolitionist, although some historians and documented Douglass descendants dispute his claim. Calling himself Frederick Douglass IV, he lays claim to a vast historic legacy.

After he sets his Panama hat down and settles in for an interview, he deflects questions about his own life in favor of a show-and-tell about Douglass's life.

From small Ziploc bags, he carefully extracts rare editions of Douglass's three autobiographies, the oldest being the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," dated 1845. He handles them delicately, as would a seller of antique books.

From an artist's portfolio, he pulls a large portrait of Frederick Douglass. Then comes a trio of small vintage photos of Douglass -- one handed down through the family, he says -- and a sculpted bust. He holds it close to his chest, as if to highlight his perceived likeness to the man in whose footsteps he has found his calling, his identity and his livelihood.

He's got a Web site for the Frederick Douglass Organization Inc., which solicits contributions and accepts booking requests for his paid performances. And he's got Frederick Douglass Enterprises Inc., through which he markets barbecue sauce.

The day before the interview, he'd FedExed a large shipment of barbecued chicken wings to this reporter's office to showcase the sauce, called the Frederick I. Douglass Wass Dis-Here Sauce.

Wass dis here? Indeed.

* * *

History isn't tamper-proof. It evolves, unfolds, enlightens. The seemingly unknowable becomes known; what once seemed certain suddenly is not.

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