The image of Frederick Douglass as a statesman, author and abolitionist will be expanded to include patriot, world figure and philanderer at a two-day conference this week hosted by the National Park Service.
The free conference, at the main auditorium of the Department of the Interior on Thursday and Friday, has more than 20 Douglass experts on the speakers list, according to organizer Frank Faragasso, of the Park Service. Some are coming from Germany, Great Britain and Ireland, where Douglass visited and was well-known for his dramatic speeches calling for the abolition of slavery.
"The conference is based on the idea American history has become more globally oriented, or at least Atlantic Ocean oriented," Faragasso said. "The world is getting smaller, and historians are looking beyond their borders. There is a need to do that with African American history as well as with Frederick Douglass."
Douglass, who was born into slavery near Easton, Md., about 1817, died in his Washington mansion in 1895. As a young man, he escaped to Massachusetts, where he became an eloquent antislavery speaker. He went on to found his own newspaper, write several books and become an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln on the slavery issue.
He pushed for emancipation and enfranchisement and supported Congress's plan for Reconstruction in the South. From 1889 to 1891, he was ambassador to Haiti. At the end of his life, he was a celebrity who traveled widely with his second wife, Helen.
George Washington University professor and author James Horton sees Douglass as a great patriot, someone who supported his country and sought to right what was wrong.
"At one point, he saw the Constitution as a slaveholding document," Horton said. "By the 1850s, he and the majority of African Americans didn't see it that way. They saw it as perverted by slavery. They wanted to free the federal government from the influence of slave power. . . . Many officials were either slaveholders or sympathizers."
Horton, one of the speakers, said Douglass is a central figure in American history, and "every American should know he was committed to American values at a time when America wasn't as committed as she should have been."
Douglass's influence in his own time spread well beyond his own country. His autobiography, written in 1845, sold well in Europe when it was translated into German and other languages. Douglass named his former master in his book and then had to flee to Europe for several years to protect himself from being taken back into slavery.
Douglass biographer and Georgia State University professor emeritus William McFeely said he will tell the conference that Douglass was "a great star when he landed in Liverpool and then went on to Dublin and Cork. . . . He was a celebrity. There would be a great crush of people after his lectures. They would gather around."
McFeely said Douglass was a gifted speaker who had a strong stage presence. "We have some terrific descriptions of his voice," he said. "It was a bass voice but not a deep one. He was able to move it, to do a falsetto thing. He was famous as a mimic, particularly good at portraying hypocritical white peachers."
A little-publicized part of Douglass's life also will be a subject for the conference. He had extramarital affairs with several women, one lasting 28 years. Maria Diedrich details that long affair he had with German writer Ottilie Assing in her recently published book, "Love Across the Color Lines."
Diedrich was able to document the first meeting of the orator and the writer in Douglass's living room, where Assing was introduced to Anna Douglass, his first wife, whom Assing mistook for a servant. Within a year, Assing had moved in with the family to work on a translation of the Douglass biography. She began to refer to herself as Douglass's "natural wife" and acting as if Anna Douglass didn't exist.
Assing followed Douglass on his speaking tours, and they vacationed together at her house in New Jersey. They worked on his speeches together, and she accompanied him on the piano when he played his violin.
She always expected he would marry her, but when Anna died in 1882, Douglass married his secretary, Helen Pitts. Assing committed suicide several months later.
Regardless of Douglass's private life, he "had the astounding ability to keep his eye on the prize," said Paul Finkelman, a constitutional historian and professor of law at the University of Tulsa College of Law.
"This guy spent his whole life on these issues, and I'm sure he had to be discouraged at times, but he didn't show it," Finkelman said. "He would persevere even in the face of unfairness.
"I have been reading Frederick Douglass on and off for 40 years," Finkelman said. "He still has things to teach us."
CAPTION: U.S. and European historians will discuss Frederick Douglass this week.