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Role of a Lifetime
A Frederick Douglass Reenactor Says He Was Born to Play the Part

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.

And so Frederick I. Douglas, this man from the small-town America of Meadville, Pa., this former photojournalist and communications director at Morgan State University, has tried to rewrite history to add himself and his relatives to the Frederick Douglass family tree, modifying his name along the way. He has claimed a blood connection to one of the greatest figures in American history, a black man whose life spanned the trauma of slavery, the Civil War and an embattled freedom.

"Douglass has this place now in our culture of sort of the black founder," says David Blight of Yale University, author of "Frederick Douglass's Civil War." To claim to be a descendant of Frederick Douglass, Blight said, "is like claiming a piece of [Thomas] Jefferson almost, for better or worse."

Born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1818 and put to work in Baltimore, Douglass learned to read, ran away in 1838 and became perhaps the most credible moral voice against human bondage. Through his extensive writings and oratory, he gave credence to the yearnings of millions of black people as they journeyed through slavery to liberty. And he exhorted them to "agitate, agitate agitate" to force America to mend its ways.

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?" he asked famously in an 1852 speech, then answered: "bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy."

Douglas, who has recited that speech in at least one performance, speaks of his "passion" for Douglass. He says he has a sense of responsibility to him that he tries to inculcate in young people, telling them, "You have an obligation to those who came before you, who came through servitude and became free and worked so hard. So you not only have a right to succeed, but you have an obligation. You really owe a debt to those who came before you."

His life as Douglass's descendant, he says, fulfills the charge his dying mother gave him back in Meadville, where his parents and his grandparents nurtured great aspirations for their Douglas line, even managing to send Douglas's dad to Howard University in the 1930s.

This is what Sallie V. Douglas said to her son in 1990, he recalls: " 'You have the lineage, the heritage, and I want you to take that, and the looks and your communication skills -- and you've always been interpreting the life of Frederick Douglass -- I want you to use that more and more as a way of communicating with young people, to try and get young people on track.' "

With his dying mother's words, he claims, his life took on new meaning and certitude, with Frederick Douglass as his beacon.

The Extra Letter

In the Meadville High School yearbook, he was "Fred Douglas." His student records at Morgan State, where he graduated as an English major in 1969, identify him as "Frederick Irving Douglas."

At some point, a second "s" began appearing in his surname. It is there in the 1982 trademark records for his barbecue sauce. In his mother's funeral brochure, on file at the Crawford County Historical Society in Meadville, he is listed as "Frederick I. Douglass Jr." His mother, father and brother are listed by the surname Douglas.

In a 1994 deed of trust, he signed as "Douglas." But in filing for bankruptcy in 1996, he signed court documents as "Douglass."

The Roman numeral IV appeared, too, on his byline in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and on his retirement letter when he left Morgan State in 2001 after 18 years as director of communications.

Douglas insists that he was born with the name Frederick I. Douglass IV. Explaining why he has not always used IV, Douglas says there was "not a need to use it. People use different things over the years. . . . I just did not use it. I didn't use it at that point in time." Now it shapes his identity and his career.

After his mother died, he began interpreting Frederick Douglass's life for tourists in Baltimore's Fells Point area. Soon, Douglas was performing more widely. His prominence grew.

"I can tell you that Fred is everywhere," says William "Billy" H. Murphy, a prominent Baltimore lawyer and former judge, who has known Douglas for some 30 years and taken him at his word that he is a Douglass descendant.

"He's always is at the scene of anything important. He's a member of several organizations. And he has been working tirelessly for the betterment of the black community in Baltimore for many years."

Douglas was appointed to several boards, including that of the Baltimore City Historical Society. He launched in 2001 the Friends of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to promote plans for the Smithsonian museum of that name. Museum officials say they have no knowledge of this group, says La Fleur Paysour, a museum spokesman.

He began appearing at events all over the country for Black History Month, Juneteenth, the Fourth of July and the reenactment of historic civil rights marches. His Web site shows photos of Douglas with President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and many others. He's been a regular at events thrown by the prestigious Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, at Yale University.

Lynne Cheney met Douglas during a National Frederick Douglass Freedom Day Event in Baltimore in 2002.

"She admired his commitment to helping children learn about the past and invited him to serve on the council of the James Madison book award," says Cristina Allegretti, Cheney's spokeswoman. Asked if the vice president's wife had verified Douglas's identity or whether she was aware of questions about his claim to the Frederick Douglass lineage, Allegretti says, "We don't have any further comment."

Asked whether the White House verified his identity before Douglas came to the two receptions where the president introduced him, Emily A. Lawrimore, a spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail: "A person's heritage isn't a consideration for invitations to the White House."

The Pocono Mountains Film Festival, which produced a documentary in which Douglas appeared, gave him a humanitarian award this month for his service to children.

Larry Sabato at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia hosted Douglas twice, in 2002 and 2006, where he spoke to youth leadership groups. Douglas was paid $3,500 and $4,500 per event, says Ken Strupe, Sabato's chief of staff.

"I'm like anybody else. I take people at face value," Sabato says. "If somebody comes up to me and says they're the great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, I'm inclined to believe them. Plus, he was very good. I really think that ought to be emphasized. He was very good. . . . The power and the emotion of his delivery: I was very moved by it."

Louis Fields, with whom Douglas worked on a Frederick Douglass tourism project, says he never asked for documentation from Douglas.

"Everybody has their version of the truth," says Fields, founder of Baltimore Black Heritage Tours, "and right now, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I don't have proof that says he is who he says he is or that he isn't."

Where's the Proof?

As Douglas's prominence grew, so too did the suspicions of some historians who had made his acquaintance. They were vexed at his inability or unwillingness to share information about the lineage he touts so widely.

Douglas has shared no information with institutions that gather data from Douglass descendants. No birth certificates, death certificates, census records, historic letters, inscribed Bibles.

The National Park Service, which runs the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia, called Cedar Hill, maintains perhaps the most comprehensive compilation of Douglass descendants, based on documented lineages.

"The Douglass descendants provided me with their family records," Cathy Ingram, curator at Cedar Hill, wrote in an e-mail, responding to an inquiry about Douglas's lineage. Referring to Douglas as "FDIV," she added: "As for FDIV, he did not volunteer to provide the site any family records."

Donna M. Wells of Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, which houses a Frederick Douglass collection, also sought lineage information from Douglas, to no avail.

"If he would tell me how he's related, we could work it back" through the family tree, says Wells. "As a historian, that's what I look for. Give me some way to trace it back."

The same information vacuum exists at the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center in Highland Beach, Md., a historically black beach town. Douglass's son, Charles Remond Douglass, was a town founder. The cultural center is housed in the restored Douglass summer home, Twin Oaks, a national historic landmark. There, Raymond Langston, a former Highland Beach mayor, and his wife, Jean, preserve a Douglass collection.

The Langstons recall a visit from Douglas several years ago, during which he and his wife wanted to find out where they fit on the Frederick Douglass family tree.

"And I said I would have to see the documentation in order to add anybody to the family tree," recalls Jean Langston. The Langstons never heard from the Douglases again, she says.

Asked in the interview why he has not provided information to these organizations, Douglas did not answer.

His story "is entirely apocryphal," says a historian who knows Douglas and has researched his claim. The historian spoke on condition of anonymity because this historian may have future contacts with Douglas.

"He's giving himself a job. I think he may actually believe he's a descendant of Frederick Douglass and in fact he might be. But as I said, we have never had sufficient evidence to verify that he is."

Says Lamar T. Wilson, former curator at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis:

"I just want him to come clean, if he's not. He can still continue as a businessman and do the reenactments."

Whose History Is It?

Nettie Washington Douglass is a documented great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass. She also happens to be a great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington, another iconic black leader.

Like Douglas, Washington Douglass frequents historic events related to Frederick Douglass. At one such event in Baltimore in 1987, a stranger approached to tell her that they were related. It was Douglas. But when she asked precisely how he was related, Douglas said they would talk about it later, Washington Douglass says.

When they next spoke, several years later, Washington Douglass inquired again. This time, Douglas responded in writing.

"I want to be very clear that I am not seeking your approval or validation of my lineage to our famed ancestor, Frederick Douglass," Douglas wrote to her in 2001. Washington Douglass shared the letter with The Washington Post. In it, Douglas detailed his lineage.

"My grandfather, Charles Douglass, was the son of Frederick Jr.," he wrote.

And, indeed, Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-1892) did have a son named Charles: Charles Paul Douglass, a troubled child prone to running away from home. He died in 1895 at the age of 16 after a long illness. He left no children behind. He could not have been Douglas's ancestor.

To Washington Douglass, that 2001 letter was proof that Douglas was not related. Angrily, she began referring to him as "the fake IV."

"I never responded to the letter," she says. Later, when she learned of his barbecue sauce, she was "so livid I cannot find the words. . . . A relative of Frederick Douglass would not do this."

A New Explanation

During a June interview with Douglas, when a reporter pointed to Charles Paul Douglass on the Douglass family tree, Douglas said "yes" when asked if that was his grandfather.

Told of Charles Paul's early death and absence of heirs, Douglas seemed confused and insisted his grandfather, Charles, did not die in 1895.

Pressed further, he added, "Well, I'm giving you the story as it was related to me."

His father, he said, had told him the family was descended from Frederick Douglass.

"So basically your father told you the story of being descended?" he was asked.

"Yes, as told by my grandfather, Charles Douglass."

After a long discussion about his forebears, he abruptly offered a new explanation: That the grandfather he was talking about was named Charles Anthony, not Charles Paul.

But there is no Charles Anthony among Frederick Douglass' grandchildren.

Douglas refused to discuss the matter further, cutting the interview off. He said, "I'd like to take the information and look at it and respond to it." Since that day, he has declined to be interviewed. Several days later, his response came by letter, with this claim: His grandfather, Charles A. Douglas, who died in 1947, was the illegitimate son of Frederick Douglass Jr.

"I am the great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass through the first-born son of Frederick Jr., Charles A. Douglass, who was born out of wedlock in 1877," Douglas wrote to The Washington Post. "I had hoped that I could continue my work without having to delve into the infidelities that my great-grandfather, Frederick Jr., was involved in and that ultimately led to my being born bearing the name Frederick Douglass. My family has kept this information in the dark and has not previously divulged this information because I did not feel that it was relevant [to] air our family laundry publicly."

And he complained: "I am forced to bring this out."

Historians who specialize in Frederick Douglass say they have never heard of an illegitimate grandson. Douglas has provided no proof.

Was Charles A. Douglas of Meadville the son of Frederick Douglass Jr.?

U.S. Census records suggest not. Charles A. Douglas told census takers that his father was born in Maryland, according to the census of 1910, 1920 and 1930. But Frederick Douglass Jr. was born in Massachusetts, where his father and mother had settled in 1838 after fleeing Maryland.

"Basically what he's doing is he's defaming the family . . . by coming up with this story about Frederick Jr.," says Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Nettie Washington Douglass's son.

Meadville Recollections

Frederick I. Douglas Sr. is a charming, garrulous man of 95 who still lives in Meadville, a town of about 13,500 about 30 miles south of Erie. He is as stooped as his age might suggest. But he still drives a car, and he still works at part-time odd jobs around town. A vacuum cleaner and a lawn edger on his enclosed front porch one June day attest to his neighborhood vocation as a Mr. Fixit. And the black lawn jockey standing jauntily in his living room is a reminder, he says, to never forget the bad old days of racism.

He agreed to talk to a reporter, whom he invited into his home. Repeatedly in the course of an hour-long interview and a second short interview the next day (on his front steps as he weeded his yard), he says he knew nothing about being descended from the great Frederick Douglass. It was not something he heard from his own father, Charles A. Douglas, he says. And it wasn't a family story he had passed down to his son. Rather, his son researched it, he says, and passed the story up to him.

The son later complained in a letter to The Washington Post about a reporter approaching his father and wrote that his father had decided to give "misinformation" and to "humor" the reporter.

The Douglases of Meadville are well-known enough to occupy several folders in the Crawford County Historical Society, though nothing in those folders mentions the famous Frederick Douglass.

In the 1910 census, Charles A. Douglas is listed as a "messenger" for a "congressman." Charles was both messenger and butler for Rep. Arthur Laban Bates, and his son says he sometimes went to work with his dad. His mother, Margaret Douglas, worked as a domestic, doing laundry and cooking for white families, he says.

Later, Charles A. Douglas became a barber as well as founder of a social club and restaurant and started a regional Negro baseball team, says Douglas Sr., who recalled the name: the Sure Taps.

Growing up, his family lived alongside other black families on Sidler Alley, a narrow byway wedged between the streets populated by whites. From there, the family could see cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan on a hilltop in the distance, he remembers. In the 1930s, his parents sent him off to Howard University.

His mother had hoped he'd become a lawyer. But his future took a detour when he had to leave school after his mother's death, he says.

"All she ever talked about, she wanted me to be a lawyer, because she worked for lawyers," Douglas Sr. says. "She wanted me to be somebody, see. But I didn't make it."

He went to work at the local Talon zipper factory and also became a contractor. He married Sallie Warren, who late in life, after their three children were grown, went to college and got her degree.

Through all his long years, Douglas Sr. never heard of the family being descended from Frederick Douglass, he says.

When people in Meadville learned that Douglas Jr. was claiming the Douglases were connected to Frederick Douglass, they peppered Douglas Sr. with questions.

They'd say: "'If he knows all this, how come you didn't know it?'"

"I'd just tell them to ask him, see, and I told Freddie about it -- 'They questioned me.' So he sent me a lot of information to read." It was historical information about Frederick Douglass.

The father was clearly trying to not contradict his son. He was clearly trying not to be critical.

Rather, he was simply telling what he did not know about the family's supposed connection to Frederick Douglass.

"To tell you the truth, I know nothing about it because I didn't research it and my dad didn't tell me anything about it 'cause my dad -- back in those days, you were busy trying to put food on the table, get your kids through school, see.

"So to tell you the truth, all I can tell you is I hope he's right."

Staff researchers Karl Evanzz and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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