The story of Frederick Douglass’s life is, at turns, tragic and awe-inspiring. He is a testament to the strength and ingenuity of the human spirit. The Henry Ford is fortunate to have some materials related to Douglass, as well as to the many areas of American history and culture he touched. What follows is an exploration of Frederick Douglass’s story through the lens of The Henry Ford’s collection, using our artifacts as touchpoints in Douglass’s life.
This portrait of Douglass was taken circa 1860, around the time Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. /THF210623
Early Life & Escape
Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey by his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey. Tragically, Douglass only saw his mother a few times before her early death, when Douglass was just seven years old. Though he had few memories of his mother, he recalled her fondly and was proud to learn that she also knew how to read. He wrote that he was “quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess” to his mother. Few enslaved people could read at that time—Douglass’s pride in his mother was certainly justified.
In 1826, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, Maryland, to live with the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld—extended family of his master, Aaron Anthony. This move to Baltimore would be transformative for Douglass. It not only exposed Douglass to the wider world, but was also where Douglass learned to read.
Douglass was initially taught to read by Sophia Auld, who considered him a bright pupil. However, the lessons were put to a stop by Hugh Auld. It was not only illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, but Hugh also believed literacy would “ruin” Douglass as a slave. In a sense, Douglass agreed, as he came to understand the vast power of literacy. Douglass would later remark that “education and slavery are incompatible with each other.”
Douglass was determined to read. He “converted to teachers” some of the friendlier white children in the neighborhood. They showed him a school reader entitled The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham, that he came to rely upon. In 1830, he purchased his own copy for 50 cents. The book—a collection of exceptional oration, poems, dialogue, and tips on the “art of eloquence”—became a great inspiration to Douglass. He carried it with him for many years to come.
“The Columbian Orator” features a discussion between an enslaved person and their master which impressed Douglass. The enslaved person’s dialogue—referred to as “smart” by Douglass—resulted in the man’s unexpected emancipation. / THF621972, THF621973
As recollected in his first memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass’s teenage years were some of his most challenging. He became viewed as a “troublemaker.” He was hired out to different farmers in the area, including one who had the reputation as an “effective slave breaker” and was especially cruel. Knowing that a larger world awaited and facing a terrible quality of life, Douglass attempted an escape in 1836. The escape failed and he was put in jail. Douglass was surprised to be released. He was sent not to the deep South as he had feared, but instead, back to Baltimore and the family of Hugh Auld, to learn the trade of caulking at the shipyards. While working there, Douglass was subjected to the animosities of his white coworkers, who beat him mercilessly—and were never arrested for it because a white witness would not testify and the word of a Black man was not admissible. He continuously dreamt of escape.
In this first memoir, Douglass provides great detail into his early life. However, because he was still a fugitive at the time of publication, he omitted details related to his escape. / THF8133
Recalling the ships on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass wrote:
“Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of the freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!”
The ships’ freedom taunted him.
On September 3rd, 1838, Douglass courageously escaped slavery. Dressed as a sailor and using borrowed documents, he boarded a train, then a ferry, and yet another train to reach New York City—and freedom. His betrothed, a free Black woman named Anna Murray, followed, and soon after they were married. Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with hopes that Frederick could find work as a caulker in the whaling port. Instead, he took on a variety of jobs—but, finally, the money he earned was fully his.
The American Anti-Slavery Society & the Abolitionists
While living in New Bedford, Douglass encountered William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, for the first time. Douglass later wrote that the paper “took its place with me next to the Bible.” The Liberator introduced to Douglass the official abolitionist movement.
In August of 1841, Douglass attended an abolitionist convention. In an impromptu speech, he regaled the audience with stories of his enslaved past. William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists noticed—Douglass’s career as an abolitionist orator had begun. Douglass became a frequent speaker at meetings of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His personal story of life enslaved humanized the abolitionist movement for many Northerners—and eventually, the world.
This copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator was published on August 16, 1839—around the time when Douglass first encountered the paper. /THF621979
Douglass was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement. He spoke at the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in support of women’s rights. In fact, the motto of his newspaper, The North Star, was “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.”
While Douglass forcefully supported women’s suffrage, some of his actions put him at odds with others in the movement. He supported the adoption of the 14th amendment, ratified in 1868, which guaranteed equality to all citizens—which included Black and white males, including the formerly enslaved. It did not include women. He also supported adoption of the 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, which secured Black males the right to vote. Again, the amendment excluded women. Although a dedicated women’s rights activist, Douglass supported the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments as he believed the matter to be “life or death” for Black people. This put him in disagreement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, as well as his friends. Despite this disagreement about timing, Douglass would continue to lecture in support of women’s equality and suffrage until his death.
John Brown’s Raid
Douglass was well-acquainted with famous abolitionist leader John Brown, first meeting him in 1847 or 1848. Brown became known for leading a raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, intending to create an “army of emancipation” to liberate enslaved people. Douglass and Brown spoke shortly before John Brown’s raid. Brown had hoped that Douglass would join him, but Douglass declined. He believed that Brown was “going into a perfect steel trap, and that once in he would not get out alive.”
Douglass was right. Brown was captured during the raid and was subsequently tried, convicted, and executed. Brown became seen as an anti-slavery martyr, as the below print shows. Henry David Thoreau remarked about him, “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature…”
A letter from Douglass was found among John Brown’s belongings, leading to warrants for Douglass’s arrest as a conspirator. He was lecturing in Philadelphia at the time of the discovery. John Hurn, Philadelphia’s telegraph operator, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. He received a dispatch for the sheriff calling for Douglass’s arrest and both sent a warning to Douglass and delayed relaying the dispatch to the sheriff. Douglass fled and made it to Canada, narrowly escaping arrest. He then went abroad on a lecture tour, resisting apprehension in the States.
The text on this Currier & Ives print reads “John Brown—The Martyr: Meeting a Slave Mother and her Child on the steps of Charlestown Jail on his way to Execution. Regarding them with a look of compassion Captain Brown stooped and kissed the Child then met his fate." This did not actually occur, but became popular lore, as well as the subject of artwork and literature. / THF8053
The Civil War & Abraham Lincoln
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. At the time, Douglass was not optimistic about the cause of abolition under Lincoln’s presidency. As tensions between the North and South grew and Civil War loomed, Douglass welcomed the impending war. As biographer David Blight states, “Douglas wanted the clarity of polarized conflict.”
Douglass got involved in the war effort through the recruitment of Black soldiers. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the second Black regiment in the Union Army. Douglass first met President Abraham Lincoln in August 1863, when he visited the White House to discuss grievances against Black troops. Even without an appointment and a room full of people waiting, Douglass was admitted to see Lincoln after just a few minutes.
Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles, fought with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Lewis Douglass was appointed Sergeant Major, the highest rank that a Black person could then hold. / THF73704
Douglass would go on to advise Lincoln over the following years. After Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he asked Douglass his thoughts about it, adding, “There is no man in these United States whose opinion I value more than yours.”
On February 1, 1865, Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of the United States Congress proposing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—the “nail in the coffin” for the institution of slavery in the United States. But before the 13th Amendment could be ratified, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. While Douglass and Lincoln certainly disagreed on many topics, Douglass remembered him fondly. In his eulogy, Douglass called Lincoln “the Black man’s president: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”
After the Civil War and even after Reconstruction, Douglass held high-ranking government appointments—often becoming the first Black person to do so. Douglass was appointed the Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889.
While Douglass certainly supported the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery, he did not think it went far enough. He remarked, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the legislatures of the south retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there.” / THF118475
Douglass continued to lecture in support of his two primary causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—until the very end. On February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, went home, and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 77 years old.
Frederick Douglass remains one of the most inspirational figures in American history. We can still feel the weight of the words he wrote and spoke, more than 125 years after his passing. Douglass said, “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” This work continues.
Frederick Douglass remains a powerful symbol of the fight for racial justice and equality. Here, his image graces the cover of Ebony Magazine’s issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. / THF98736_REDACTED
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. She appreciated the recently published book by David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, as she conducted research for this post.
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," 1845 / THF8133
“I was born in Tuckahoe…in Talbot County, Maryland,” begins Frederick Douglass, in this, his first of three memoirs. In 1818, he was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, to Harriet Bailey, his enslaved mother, and an unknown white father—likely his master, Aaron Anthony. At the age of twenty, he escaped slavery and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. This first memoir, published in 1845, is foremost an account of Douglass’s early life—from the time of his birth until his daring escape.
But it is also a political text that humanized the enslaved and the cause of abolition. Douglass was a master storyteller—as well as a legendary orator—and this memoir is a compilation of the most moving moments of his young life, including the tragically few memories he has of his mother, the gruesome beatings he both endured and witnessed, the joys and challenges of learning to read, and, of course, his courageous escape from slavery. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies and supported the young family he was building with his wife, Anna Murray Douglass.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass, circa 1860 / THF210623
Douglass is best known for his long and celebrated career as an abolitionist orator, which began with an impromptu speech at an 1841 antislavery meeting. This would be the first of a lifetime of speeches. Douglass would go on to lecture about racial equality all over the world until his death in 1895. He also advised numerous sitting American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, and was the first Black man to hold numerous high-ranking governmental posts.
Douglass was both a witness and a catalyst: he exposed the horrors of slavery and inequality, and then made it his life’s work to create a more just America.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
My name is Shannon Rossi, and I’m a Collections Specialist, Cataloger, for archival items. I started at The Henry Ford as a Simmons Intern in 2018, and have been a Collections Specialist since March 2019. Anyone who knows me knows that I love The Wizard of Oz. It is my favorite film. I collect Oz memorabilia and am a member of The International Wizard of Oz Club.
The artifact I’m going to talk about here is related to The Wizard of Oz. But it’s not the artifact you might expect.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first edition, 1900 / THF135495
On my second day as a Simmons intern in 2018, Sarah Andrus, Librarian at The Henry Ford, showed me a beautiful first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The little girl who used to dance around the house singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” rejoiced when I was able to hold that book in my hands. In my own collection of Oz memorabilia, I have a 1939 edition, but this was another experience entirely.
Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland. I signed up to do a History Outside the Box presentation to commemorate the anniversary. History Outside the Box allows us to showcase some of our archival items that visitors to The Henry Ford might not otherwise get a chance to see. In addition to the first edition book, I knew we had some fantastic Oz artifacts in our collection. We have copies of the special edition TV Guides that came out in July 2000, each with one of the main characters on the cover. We have sheet music for “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “Over the Rainbow,” a coloring book from the 1950s, an original 1939 advertisement for the film an issue of Life magazine, and a photograph of Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) when he visited Greenfield Village in the 1960s.
Bert Lahr Signing Autographs during a Visit to Greenfield Village, August 22, 1966 / THF128032
The artifact I want to talk about isn’t as famous or recognizable as anything I listed above. You pretty much have to be a diehard Oz fan (or have worked on acquiring, cataloging, or digitizing this item—which I did not) to even associate much meaning with it.
While browsing our collections for archival items to use in my History Outside the Box presentation, I found a theater program from the 1903 musical production of The Wizard of Oz at the Boston Theatre. (Be honest, how many of you knew that the 1939 film wasn’t the first musical production of Oz?)
Theater Program, "The Wizard of Oz," Boston Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, 1903 / THF93092
We’ve established that I am a huge Oz fan. I knew about this production, as well as several of the early film productions (check them out if you get a chance!), but I had never seen a program from the show. This program is not visually spectacular. It is black and white. The vivid colors and magical illustrations from W.W. Denslow that are featured in the Oz first edition are conspicuously absent. In fact, the only illustration that anyone might associate with Oz is on the cover, which features a beautiful illustration of the Cowardly Lion about to fall asleep among a field of poppies that create a border around the page.
The story and lyrics for this musical adaptation was written by L. Frank Baum, but not all of it would seem familiar. We’d see, of course, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Wizard. The Cowardly Lion, however, cannot speak, as he does in the book and almost every later adaption, nor does he ever befriend Dorothy. Dorothy’s house doesn’t land on any Wicked Witch. Nor does she receive any magical slippers (silver, as in the book, or ruby, as in the movie). Even our favorite precocious Cairn Terrier, Toto, is missing from this story. Toto is replaced by a cow named Imogene, who serves as Dorothy’s Kansas companion.
The cast list for Act I in the program includes Dorothy Gale and “Dorothy’s playmate,” the cow Imogene. / THF141760
The action in Oz has to do with political tensions between the Wizard and Pastoria, the King of Oz (who does appear in later Oz books). In fact, even real-life politicians and notable members of society at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, were mentioned in the script.
The Boston Theatre production that audiences saw in November 1903 featured songs by composer Paul Tietjens, who had approached L. Frank Baum about creating an Oz musical as early as March 1901. Tietjens wasn’t exactly famous, but the play did feature some well-known actors of the early 20th century.
Most importantly, there are two names in the program that stand out: Fred Stone and David Montgomery. The two actors were paired on stage in many vaudeville shows. The pair played the Scarecrow and Tin Man in this musical adaptation. Later, when Ray Bolger was cast as the Scarecrow in the 1939 musical, he would credit Stone with inspiring his “boneless” style of dance and movement as the character.
Page seven of the program lists actors Fred A. Stone as the Scarecrow and David C. Montgomery as the Tin Woodman / THF141761
I’m grateful that this artifact was digitized. It’s not something you see or hear about very often, but it has a lot of power for Oz fans like me. That’s the power of digitization—the impact of a digitized artifact doesn’t have to reach huge audiences, if it reaches a smaller but enthusiastic audience. Digitization can allow us to marvel (slight pun about Professor Marvel in the 1939 musical definitely intended…) at an object we know exists somewhere out in the world, but have never seen before.
James A. H. Bell (circa 1890-1915) has his Zoom bookshelf game on point. / THF38607
I’m Sarah Andrus, and I am the librarian at The Henry Ford. The Henry Ford’s library is an extensive resource for our staff, researchers, and scholars to explore our collections, as well as provide all of the background reading you could need for a lifetime. While our reading room has been closed to the public, I’ve been providing book recommendations to my colleagues at The Henry Ford, and I’d like to pass those along to you!
It is now the end of October, and that means two things:
It is National Book Month, and readers around the world get to celebrate their favorite stories.
In 2020 we have all been on way too many video calls.
All of our virtual meetings have led to plenty of office backdrops across Zoom calls, Facetime catch-ups, and virtual happy hours. Here at the Henry Ford we have been keeping an eye on everyone else’s bookshelves, as well as making sure our own are up to snuff for every person we now welcome into our home offices.
So to celebrate the end of National Book Month, I am here to help you spruce up your bookshelves so that they are ready to impress friends, families, coworkers, and even the occasional webinar audience—with the added bonus that you’ll actually want to read them!
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
2020 feels like we are all living through a history book, which makes Lepore’s tome chronicling the story of our nation a welcome companion. These Truths is well researched and compulsively readable. As a bonus, at over 900 pages it is sure to stick out on your bookshelf!
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
Readers who are fans of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird will find a new take on Harper Lee. Part biography, part story of a small-town serial killer, and full of Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and the real Macomb (Monroeville), Furious Hours has something for everyone. It is addictive, literary, and full of little facts that will stick with readers well after finishing the last page.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
A timely new release for 2020 from Wilkerson, Caste is an informative read, and perfect to continue a personal education on the events of this year. It is also going to be a hit on your shelves.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
This has been a year of home cooking. Nosrat’s cookbook is a must-have for new cooks and foodies alike. It teaches technique, not just recipes, and includes beautiful illustrations. The cover isn’t too shabby, either.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Traveling may be out of the cards, but with Broom’s memoir you’ll find yourself transported to New Orleans East, an area rarely written about, but full of culture and personality. Broom weaves the history of her hometown with her own life story to create a mesmerizing tale of resilience, community, and family.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humbolt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
After a summer of gardening, hiking and generally enjoying the outdoors, there is no better friend than Wulf’s gorgeous biography of environmentalist Alexander Von Humbolt. Chronicling a life both thoughtful and adventurous, The Invention of Nature is a worthy addition to your Zoom bookshelf.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel
Fiction has a big place in 2020. In a time when travel is difficult, socialization has changed and the world feels completely different, there is always comfort in a story. In The Glass Hotel, Mandel takes readers back a decade to the last financial crisis—but also to the Canadian wilderness and out to sea. It is an adventure full of interesting characters living their most flawed lives. It is everything a good story should be, with a cover to stun on your shelves.
Even in 2020, books remain a way we can learn, travel, and expand our world—at a time where it feels harder to do these things outside of our houses. These recommendations will help keep your horizons broad, and your Zoom contacts impressed.
Rachel Carson devoted her early career to studying and writing about the ocean. During the 1950s, her poetic books about the sea brought her recognition and fame as an author.
Carson’s books helped build a new awareness about the environment. Her most important book, Silent Spring, released in 1962, asked Americans to examine the negative effects of widespread chemical pesticide use.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, linked human action to environmental destruction and ignited a national conversation. THF110029
During World War II, a chemical called DDT protected troops by killing disease-spreading insects. After the war, numerous products containing DDT became commercially available to American consumers for pest control.
In Silent Spring, Carson urged the public to live in harmony with nature and cautioned against the overuse of DDT, which destroyed insect populations and threatened other wildlife species. America reacted. The government banned DDT in 1972. The environmental movement—sparked in part by Carson’s book—continues today.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Rachel Carson, Luther Burbank, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Carson’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores
The post-WWII “chemical craze” that prompted Carson to act
The long-term environmental effects of pesticide misuse
Books and magazines from the beginning of the environmental movement
Carson’s influence on the evolution of environmental activism
One of the comic book titles that came under attack in the 1950s THF141540
The popularity of comic books has always ebbed and flowed. But there was a time when their very survival was at stake. Back in the 1950s, Cold War hysteria and the fear of Communist infiltration into American society led to a deep concern about, and intense scrutiny of, comic books. This was the one medium at the time that went directly from manufacturer to child, bypassing adult supervision.
An American psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham fanned the flames of adult concern at the time. Dr. Wertham worked with juvenile delinquents and found that the one thing they all seemed to have in common was their devotion to comic books. Beginning in 1948, he went on an anti-comic book crusade, writing and speaking out against the detrimental effects that he claimed comic book reading had on young people.
Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent book, 1954 THF277193
Dr. Wertham summed up his arguments in his 1954 opus, Seduction of the Innocent. This 400-page indictment of the comic book industry warned parents and educators that comic books were not only a harmful form of popular literature but also a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. In the book, as in his lectures, he cited examples of violence, sexual themes, drug use, and other adult fare that he had found within the pages of actual comic books—asserting that reading this material encouraged similar behavior. According to Dr. Wertham, these examples were especially evidenced in the extremely popular crime and horror titles published by the EC comic book company at the time.
Comic books with covers like this one, showing violence and scantily clad women, were among those that Dr. Wertham denounced. THF141552
Seduction of the Innocent created a sensation, as Dr. Wertham put forth a potent combination of professional expertise and moral outrage. It confirmed the growing fear by many parents that their children’s attachment to comic books was permanently harming their willingness to conform to societal rules and hindering their ability to become law-abiding citizens in America’s democratic society.
1951 Superman comic book predating the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval THF141569
1965 Superman comic book with its Comics Code Authority stamp of approval in the upper right corner THF305329
The national attention focused upon the comic book industry led to a simultaneous U.S. Congressional inquiry in 1954. As things were looking bleak for the comic book industry, the publishers decided to band together and self-censor their own titles by adopting a new Comics Code Authority (or CCA). According to CCA regulations, each company was required to include a Stamp of Approval on the cover of every one of its issues as a sign that it had met compliance with the Code.
December 1954 issue of Mad when it was a comic book, just before it was converted into a magazine THF141567
As a result, EC titles were soon taken off the shelves. In fact, this company would have been completely wiped out except for its popular Mad magazine, which became highly successful in its own right. Even though the other comic book companies honed their stories closely to the guidelines of the Code, the damage had been done. Comic books were held in disdain for years to the point that, by the early 1960s, their very survival was at risk. We can thank, in large part, Marvel Comics’ new approach to stories and superheroes for their remarkable comeback.
Dr. Wertham was later discredited for “manipulating, overstating, compromising, and fabricating” evidence. And, before long, parents found that comic books were minor in their concern about harmful influences on America’s youth, as they seemed like nothing compared to the new Hollywood teenage films, paperback novels, and rock ‘n’ roll music! Only later did people better understand that teenage angst and rebellion were very normal parts of growing up.
Teenage movies like the one shown in this 1959 poster made comic books seem tame by comparison. THF109455
Through the ensuing decades, few comic books dared veer from the Code’s regulations that forbade depictions of graphic violence, advocated alignment with societal norms, and dictated that all comic book stories end on an upbeat note. But by the late 20th century, these norms had changed enough that the earlier regulations had lost much of their relevance. The two major comic book companies—Marvel and DC—finally dropped the CCA in favor of their own rating systems—in 2001 and 2011, respectively.
For a time, comic books went on trial. But they managed to survive and adapt. Ironically, later studies revealed that comic books actually played a positive role in enhancing literacy, inspiring imagination, providing new career outlets, and leading to lifetime hobbies.
Tracy K. Smith is the current Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, commonly known as the US Poet Laureate. She is only the fourth African American to hold this post (or its predecessor, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) since its establishment in 1937, following Robert Hayden (1976–78), Gwendolyn Brooks (1985–86), and Rita Dove (1993–95 and 1999–2000).
Smith’s term as Poet Laureate comes at a particularly auspicious time, as the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden (2016– ), is both the first woman and the first African American ever to hold that post—and she was nominated to her office by the first African American president, Barack Obama.
All of these offices had previously been held primarily or solely by white men, and with the new officeholders have come new perspectives. In Smith’s case, this began with her Poet-Laureate project, American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities, an outreach effort where she envisioned “poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers.” It continues in her latest book of poetry, Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018).
A book of poetry might seem at first glance to be a strange way to bring the past forward, tying historical events to topics at the forefront of our national conversation today. As Smith notes in the introduction to American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, an anthology of poetry she edited, the very nature of a poem – from the layout of words on a page to the vivid, emotion-inducing language used – can “call our attention to moments when the ordinary nature of experience changes—when the things we think we know flare into brighter colors, starker contrasts, strange and intoxicating possibilities.” Poetry can help us process and make sense of complicated issues, and allow us the empathy to see things from someone else’s perspective.
In Wade in the Water, Smith takes this cultural and historical perspective one step further, with poems that use historical documents, including letters from slaveholders and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, to shed light on today. Some of these are “erasure” poems, where Smith relies solely on text from these documents—but removes portions to induce a new perspective for the reader. “Declaration,” for example, removes words from the Declaration of Independence:
Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. --taken Captive on the high Seas to bear—
The words she chooses to include are reminiscent of the forced journey of slaves to America and highlight the day-to-day experiences of African Americans as in contrast to the high ideals of the original document.
In the lengthy poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All About It,” Smith again shares the direct words of African Americans who enlisted to fight in the Civil War, as well as their families, “arranged in such a way as to highlight certain of the main factors affecting blacks during the Civil War….” Excerpts from the letters and documents use the original spelling of the writers (pointing out the literacy levels of African Americans at the time), and shed light on the ways the war impacted African American families—many of which concerns still sound familiar today. The initial section of the poem is drawn from a November 21, 1864, letter from Mrs. Jane Welcome to Abraham Lincoln:
The poems that use only Smith’s own words also reference the past as a way to understand the present. In “Refuge,” the narrator tries to create empathy within herself for an immigrant, a refugee, by seeing that person as her mother during the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
Empathy is clearly a key theme running through both Smith’s Poet-Laureate project and her poetry. Asked what “the greatest challenge of our time” is in an August 24, 2018, interview with the Financial Times, Smith answered, “Love. Maybe a better word is compassion. In particular, we have to learn a new way of looking at the people we fear; people we have socially acceptable ways of dismissing or condemning for their own misery or misfortune.” She invites us to use our own American history as that new lens in order to better understand others, the world we live in today, and not least, ourselves.
Ellice Engdahl is Manager, Digital Collections and Content, at The Henry Ford.
The civil unrest in Detroit, along with violent uprisings in other cities across America during the “long hot summer” of 1967, demonstrated that urban African Americans were angry and frustrated by the lack of progress that had been made in achieving basic rights and equality. Despite the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such issues as substandard housing, unemployment, low-quality education, lack of access to medical facilities, police brutality, mistreatment by white merchants, shortage of city services, and white indifference to these problems were all cited as root causes of these uprisings. A combination of hopelessness and rage led many African Americans to believe that the only way to effect change was to take things into their own hands “by any means necessary.” This new sense of empowerment formed the basis of what came to be called the Black Power movement.
What history tends to remember about the Black Power movement is its more militant aspects—the symbol of the raised fist, the militaristic berets and leather jackets of the Black Panthers, the protesting athletes at the 1968 Olympics. But Black Power was actually an extensive, multi-faceted array of smaller movements and grass-roots attempts to improve quality of life, raise consciousness, and change mindsets.
Educators, specifically, felt that the key to effecting change within African American communities was through the re-education of its youth—a reshaping of curriculum that would have a long-term impact on reducing racism, instilling pride, and encouraging the kind of self-confidence and self-respect that would equip young African Americans to make a difference in society in ways in which their parents and grandparents could only dream.
The Henry Ford has in its collection the papers and personal library of one such educator. James Buntin, born in 1921, came to Ann Arbor in 1969, as a middle school social studies and civics teacher, and soon also became the Director of Personnel Administration at the Ann Arbor Public Schools, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, and an Adjunct Professor at Wayne State University teaching in the College Program at Jackson Prison. Throughout his teaching career, Dr. Buntin was an active proponent of desegregation, a prominent advocate of a multi-ethnic curriculum, and a staunch defender of the need to hire more African Americans in the Ann Arbor school system.
The personal library that he accumulated not only reflects his own passions as an African American educator but also provides a unique window into the issues, topics, and debates of the Black Power era during the late 1960s and early 1970s—issues that still deeply resonate today. The following is an annotated selection of books from Dr. Buntin’s library, revealing insights into an era that is often overshadowed by the wider attention paid to the earlier Civil Rights movement.
Manchild in the Promised Land book cover, 1965/reprinted 1967 THF266618
The late 1960s brought a new appreciation for black memoirs and autobiographies, some of which were newly published, others—like this book—were reissued as out-of-print classics. These works offered a gritty, sometimes shocking, realism that did not make concessions to white readers or convey stereotypical African American roles.
Originally published in 1965, this autobiographical narrative recounts Claude Brown’s coming-of-age in 1940s-1950s Harlem, against the starkness of poverty and an astonishing culture of violence. Brown recounts the hopes, dreams, and struggles of the first generation of Northern urban African Americans to establish their place in the “promised land” of both New York City and America itself.
This collection of accounts of nearly 200 primary- and secondary-school children provides a rare child’s-eye-view into ghetto life. The children were asked to “think about themselves, their painfully limiting surroundings, and the broader world which they often know of only by hearsay.” The intent of the editor, a New York City educator, was to diminish the stigma of the words “ghetto” and “slums” among the broader public.
The writings in this book reveal that, when given the chance and encouragement to write, these children had a tremendous amount to say. Their writings were, indeed, often at odds with wider perceptions of disillusionment and hopelessness in ghetto neighborhoods, as themes of hope and renewal often emerged.
Why We Can’t Wait book cover, 1963/reprinted 1968 THF266487
By the late 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s long-running campaign of nonviolent direct action was falling out of favor with those who believed that more militant action was necessary. Then, in April 1968, King’s assassination sent shock waves of grief, fear, and anger throughout African American communities, leading to rioting and looting in more than 100 cities.
This 1963 book, considered King’s most incisive and eloquent work, was reprinted after his assassination with the editor’s hope that its distribution would “help preserve the memory of this wise and courageous America, so that his words may continue to guide the way toward human dignity for all.” The prophetic quote on the front cover of this edition comes from King’s speech to Memphis sanitation workers the night before he was assassinated.
At a freedom march in 1966, Stokely Carmichael (then Chairman of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) set a new tone for the black freedom movement by leading marchers in the chant, “We Want Black Power.” Drawing upon long traditions of racial pride and Black Nationalism, Black Power advocates believed that African Americans could no longer afford to believe their “liberation” would come through non-violent action or traditional political processes. As the authors of this seminal book argued, the poverty and powerlessness of this country’s black population had made it imperative to organize their own political structure and take control over their own communities and lives.
Balancing the more militant aspects of the Black Power era was the doctrine of Black Pride, which including being proud of one’s heritage. Until this time, social studies textbooks had depicted African Americans as either coming from a state of barbarism and savagery or transplanted from a place that simply had no history at all.
Books like this one both helped to remedy this situation as well as contribute to an emerging movement called “Pan-Africanism”—the recognition that the destinies of all people living in or having come from Africa were intertwined. African Americans eagerly shared pride in the recent gains made by African countries to win their independence.
Renewed interest in black heritage brought about a growing nationwide effort to develop Black Studies programs, curricula, and textbooks that presented a different and more equal treatment of African Americans.
James Buntin was a passionate advocate of implementing what was then called a multi-ethnic curriculum in schools—which sought to challenge prevailing Eurocentric curricula by recovering and reconstructing the stories of Americans whom history had traditionally neglected. To Be a Slave, considered a groundbreaking work of the time, included personal accounts of ex-slaves, “described in vivid and often painful detail.” Some of these oral history accounts had been published before, others were drawn from sources long forgotten.
This book, part of Dr. Buntin’s multi-ethnic curriculum collection, presented a graphic portrait of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The photographs were originally compiled for an exhibit at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum—a show that proved to be both controversial and highly popular.
The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 in West Oakland, California, was one of the more militant groups to emerge out of the Black Power movement. Black Panthers both participated in armed patrols to protect local citizens from police brutality and organized myriad community service programs. At its peak, the Black Panther Party maintained chapters in 48 states in North America and support groups in other countries.
Amidst the student demonstrations, protests, and disruptions on college campuses during the late 1960s-early 1970s, African-American students demanded a greater voice in administrative policy. Referred to collectively as the Black Student or Black Action movement, these demands sometimes turned into bitter confrontations, including a student protest and strike in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March 1970. The results of these confrontations varied, but many universities created Black, or Afro-American, Studies programs or departments in the 1970s.
In this book, author Harry Edward, a Sociology Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, places Black student movements within the larger contexts of the human rights struggle and the Black Power movement.
We Walk the Way of the World book cover, 1970/3rd printing 1971 THF266637
During this era, a blossoming Black Arts movement advocated a “black aesthetic,” meaning artistic expression rooted in African cultural heritage, incorporating the contemporary black experience, and aimed at Black audiences.
Poetry as a literary form flourished, as it was intended to be read aloud and often incorporated the direct “call and response” style of black churches. Don Lee, the author of this book of poems and a prominent figure in the Black Arts movement, was instrumental in reinforcing Black-spoken language, the language of familiar experience, in his poems.
The Black Arts movement helped lay the foundation authors such as Maya Angelou, hip-hop music and culture, and other later black cultural expressions.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
If you visit the Wright Home in Greenfield Village, the presenter in the house will probably draw your attention to the bookcase in the living room. Many of these books, along with more housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, did indeed belong to the Wrights, and were used by Orville and Wilbur Wright, their sister Katharine, or their father Milton. We’ve just digitized over 50 Wright family books, including this 1892 copy of Medea used by Katharine Wright. Other examples include The Principal Works of Charles Darwin, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and A Manual of Instruction in Latin. Browse the list of titles to see what other bookish ideas may have influenced the young Wright Brothers by visiting our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Not long ago, Chief Archivist Terry Hoover popped his head into my office. This isn’t unusual, as Terry and I sit next to each other, but in this case, he had something special to share. He’d discovered a couple of late 19th century children’s books relating to Christmas in our rare books collection, and wondered if we could digitize them. This week, just in time for Christmas, we have. A Visit from Santa Claus retells the famous Clement Moore poem beginning “’Twas the night before Christmas,” with each page of text accompanied by a lovely full-color illustration by Virginia Gerson. Or, check out Santa Claus's New Castle, written by Maude Florence Bellar and illustrated by Dixie Selden. View all pages of both books on our collections website, or check out all of our digital collections related to Christmas.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.