Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Trump implied Frederick Douglass was alive. The abolitionist's family offered a 'history lesson.'

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

February 2, 2017 at 12:25 PM

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President Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer highlighted Frederick Douglass on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. Trump said that Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, author and vice-presidential candidate, "is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” (The Washington Post)

The world may never know whether President Trump just got a little sloppy with his verb tenses on Wednesday morning or simply had no idea that the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was, in fact, dead.

"Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice," the president said.

Critics seized on Trump's comments at a Black History Month event, mercilessly attacking him for statements that spoke of Douglass in the present tense.

The Atlantic asked, simply: "Does Donald Trump actually know who Frederick Douglass was?" and said that Trump's remarks were "transparently empty."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank joked that Trump "raised the dead."

And someone started a Frederick Douglass Twitter account that trolled the president before it was deleted (although some of the tweets have been saved).

Even White House press secretary Sean Spicer struggled to clarify Douglass-gate when asked at a briefing later on Wednesday. "I think there's contributions — I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made," Spicer said of Trump's reference to Douglass. "And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he's going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more."

Kenneth B. Morris Jr. (Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives)

But the descendants of the revered abolitionist — who, just to be clear, died in 1895 after becoming a powerful voice against slavery and then Jim Crow — responded on Wednesday.

"My first instinct was to go on the attack," said Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Douglass's great-great-great grandson. "I think it was obvious to anyone that heard [Trump's] comments or read his comments that he was not up to speed on who Frederick Douglass was. We just thought that was an opportunity to do a history lesson and to make some points about what we're currently working on."

The family released a statement on the Huffington Post on Wednesday.

"Like the President, we use the present tense when referencing Douglass's accomplishments because his spirit and legacy are still very much alive, not just during Black History Month, but every month," the family wrote.

" … We believe, if he had more time to elaborate, the President would have mentioned the following: Frederick Douglas has done an amazing job …"

This is a photo of a daguerreotype of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. (AP Photo)

Then the family mic-dropped 15 things Douglass has done a great job at:

If Douglass were still alive, he'd celebrate his 200th birthday next year.

The family's statement said they were involved in several initiatives that highlight their ancestor's legacy.

"We look forward to helping re-animate Douglass's passion for equality and justice over the coming year leading up to his Bicentennial in 2018," the statement said. "We encourage the President to join in that effort."

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Cleve Wootson is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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