Making Frederick Douglass
AP Photo
Making Frederick Douglass
AP Photo

Frederick Douglass was just a boy when he heard his enslaver say that learning to read “would forever unfit him to be a slave,” and that was all the inspiration he needed.

“He’s carrying in his pocket, bread or biscuits, and he’s trading those biscuits for reading lessons,” said Ken Morris, Douglass’ great-great-great-grandson and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “And the young students that I interact with, they always get it. They’ll say, ‘So Mr. Morris, what you’re telling me is Frederick would rather feed his mind and have his stomach go empty.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”

Douglass would later escape slavery, become a fierce advocate for the rights of women and people of color, write one of the most famous anti-slavery memoirs in history and serve as an advisor to presidents, amongst many other accomplishments.

To explain his improbable journey from slavery to the most powerful rooms in the country, Making host Brandon Pope leads a conversation with Morris, Douglass’ Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer David Blight, and Emmy-award winning actor Jeffrey Wright, who’s lent his voice to Douglass for HBO and Apple Books.

“He’s a founding father of the American conscious.” Wright said of Douglass on Making. “That’s how I view him.”

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

Making Frederick Douglass
AP Photo
Making Frederick Douglass
AP Photo

Frederick Douglass was just a boy when he heard his enslaver say that learning to read “would forever unfit him to be a slave,” and that was all the inspiration he needed.

“He’s carrying in his pocket, bread or biscuits, and he’s trading those biscuits for reading lessons,” said Ken Morris, Douglass’ great-great-great-grandson and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “And the young students that I interact with, they always get it. They’ll say, ‘So Mr. Morris, what you’re telling me is Frederick would rather feed his mind and have his stomach go empty.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”

Douglass would later escape slavery, become a fierce advocate for the rights of women and people of color, write one of the most famous anti-slavery memoirs in history and serve as an advisor to presidents, amongst many other accomplishments.

To explain his improbable journey from slavery to the most powerful rooms in the country, Making host Brandon Pope leads a conversation with Morris, Douglass’ Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer David Blight, and Emmy-award winning actor Jeffrey Wright, who’s lent his voice to Douglass for HBO and Apple Books.

“He’s a founding father of the American conscious.” Wright said of Douglass on Making. “That’s how I view him.”

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

Brandon Pope: A quick warning: This episode contains vivid discussions of slavery and violence. 


Brandon Pope: He was born into slavery. And treated with savagery and inhumanity. But he secretly taught himself to read. Then he escaped bondage to become America’s most revered abolitionist, and wrote the most famous anti-slavery memoir in history. From WBEZ Chicago. This is Making Frederick Douglass, I’m Brandon Pope. Today, how Frederick Douglass overcame all odds to escape slavery and become a gifted orator, a leader of his people – and one of the most famous Americans in the 19th century. How Frederick Douglass became Frederick Douglass. Joining us is Douglass’s great great great grandson – and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, Ken Morris.

Ken Morris: His blood flows through my veins. And I carry his DNA. 

Brandon Pope: The Emmy winning actor who has given his voice to Douglass many times, Jeffrey Wright. 

Jeffrey Wright: He's on the level of the superhero, a historical superhero.

Brandon Pope: And the author of the Pulitzer-winning biography: “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom”: Professor David Blight.

David Blight: Douglass is a pathway into understanding what this country is about and who we are.

Brandon Pope: How Frederick Douglass became Frederick Douglass, today on Making.


Brandon Pope: Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. Like so many millions of the enslaved, he knew very little about himself. 

AUDIOBOOK: I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. 


Brandon Pope: Douglass barely knew his mother. And didn’t know the identity of his father. They were separated shortly after his birth and she died a few years later. As for his father …

AUDIOBOOK: My father was a white man. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.

Brandon Pope: He was raised by his grandmother in a small cabin outside the plantation until he was old enough to work. He was six years old when his grandmother walked him 12 miles through the woods and left him at the plantation. Once there, one of his first memories was the lashing of his aunt.

AUDIOBOOK: He commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. 

Brandon Pope: For the next few years, Douglass witnessed or was subject to all the horrors of slavery, from basic indecencies and casual violence to outright murder. Then: the first lucky break of his life. Douglass was chosen to live with a family in Baltimore, to serve as a companion for their young son. 

AUDIOBOOK: This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.

Brandon Pope: What you just heard was the voice of Jeffrey Wright narrating the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for Apple books sounded great there, Jeffrey,

Jeffrey Wright: No, appreciate it. Appreciate it. Good words, is the it's the words more so than anything else.

Brandon Pope: It helps to have a good script to go by. So David Blight, I’m going to come to you now. You’re Douglass’ biographer. And Douglass, he witnessed and experienced a lot of trauma in his early years of life. Can you speak to his understanding of injustice as a child? He was born into, obviously, a terrifying world and the human brain is good at coping and tricking itself into believing things are in order. So what does Douglass see on the plantation? How does he internalize that? What was his kind of feeling around injustice around that time?

David Blight: Oh, I love that question. And your point about trauma is absolutely true. Trauma is a modern word. And sometimes, you know, we bandied about so easy, everything's traumatic. But this is a kid who grew up living with once he's old enough to be aware of it, a process of daily humiliation. Now Douglass would always say in 100 ways that his greatest fears about slavery and his deepest sense of what slavery did to people, was its threat to the mind. Its ability to destroy the mental stability, or for that matter, to create ignorance, he was always arguing that slavery is a system of ignorance. So what we find in that narrative is a 27 year old trying to piece together that youth, that story of his youth into what becomes now a narrative story, that is also abolitionist propaganda. He's, he's recruiting you as a reader into the abolition movement with these stories, but the good news about the narrative and, and the second, much longer and even greater autobiography is that almost all of the essential details, names, places, most events, is verifiable, and has been verified. He isn't just making up all these things. He saw what he writes about. but then he has that ability as an artist, as a prose artist to put it into story form, which just draws you in and makes it a page turner.

Brandon Pope: Absolutely. We're gonna dive deeper into the narrative here in a few minutes. But this, this conversation around trauma, you know, I think about the trauma kids nowadays endure from Chicago to California. I think they could all benefit from reading your book, David, and from reading the writings of Frederick Douglass. I do want to fast forward a little bit to Baltimore. Ken Morris, just to remind everyone, you’re Douglass’s great great great grandson. I want to ask you about Douglass going to Baltimore. He was just seven years old. Why did Douglass call this moment divine providence?

Ken Morris: On the plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, he said he was the first last and only choice to go to Baltimore to be the house servant for his masters family, and there were a lot of enslaved children on that plantation. And so he described that, in his first autobiography is, as some sort of divine intervention. But it wasn't until a second autobiography, My Bondage and My freedom, where he described it as divine providence in his favor. And when he gets to Baltimore, he's he's now in the big city. He's around free black children, and he's around poor white children. But what happens most importantly, when he gets there, his slave mistress Sophia Auld had never had a slave before, didn't know that it was illegal to teach him to read and write. And he asked her to teach him. So she begins to teach him his ABCs. And that was all he really needed was that little spark of light into his mental bondage. And so the lessons would continue for a little while until his enslaver Hugh Auld found out about them. And when Hugh Auld found out he got angry, got really mad, and he looked at his wife, and he looked at young Frederick, and this is how Frederick described it. In his autobiographies, he said you cannot teach a slave how to read and write because if you do it will unfit him to be a slave. And Frederick looked at his enslaver and he thought, hmm, if you don't want me to have this, I'm going to do everything in my power to gain it. And he really understood right then and there, that knowledge is power. And when we talk about the relevance of Frederick Douglass words today, that's something that young people hear: knowledge is power. And Frederick understood that education equals emancipation education equals live ration education equals freedom. And he would teach himself to read and write.

Brandon Pope: Ken, can you can you dive deeper on how extraordinary it was for an enslaved child to learn how to read?

Ken Morris: How extraordinary it would be for anybody to teach himself how to read and write. It's amazing. And again, you know, it shows his brilliance as a young boy. And so he's carrying in his pocket bread or biscuits. And he's trading those biscuits for reading lessons. And we spend a lot of time at our organization, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives in schools, and I always talk about the story that Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography how he was always so hungry, as a slave child, he always had this pit of hunger in his stomach, that would never go away. And on occasion, when he would get food, the overseer would take cornmeal mush, and throw it into a trough similar to what pigs would eat out of. And all of the children including Frederick would crawl on their hands and knees to try to eat what little food was in there to eat like animals. And so if you think of this little boy, that is hungry, that he would trade something of such great importance, food, of such great value to him for reading lessons. And the young students that I interact with, they always get it they'll say, so Mr. Morris, what you're telling me is Frederick would rather feed his mind than have his stomach go empty. And that's exactly what he did. And it's just an amazing story.

Brandon Pope: And when Mr. Auld learned that his wife was teaching Douglass, his ABCs, he immediately forbade it and basically said that literacy would make him forever unfit to be a slave. And, you know, Douglass must have heard this and thought, Eureka, this is...

Ken Morris: And he would be running away with himself. Which in fact, he did later.

Brandon Pope: Exactly.

Ken Morris: And Brandon, Douglass later would use that moment. And he would say, you know, when Hugh Auld told his wife to stop teaching me, that was the first anti slavery speech I ever heard. He was always an ironist, always an ironist.

Brandon Pope: Yes, yes. Jeffrey, when you read these accounts and you hear these accounts, what stood out to you from this time in Douglass's life? What really struck you?

Jeffrey Wright: Speaking of the trauma, you talked about, you know, in other cities around the country, that was one thing that I was struck with which here is this extraordinary exemplar life led by this man, and yet, just literally across the street from his his homestead in southeast D.C. is some of the most decimated, desolated, deprived, trauma stricken communities in this country. I mean, it's, it's it's dense over there. It's thick. And so I think that was maybe the overarching thing that struck me, what have we learned as a society? What particularly among the Black community? What have we learned and what have we, how have we been strengthened by his victories? And I'm not sure in quite, in fact, I'm certain that we have not, to the extent that we should. Ideally, more conversations like this will bring more attention to him and to the lessons that he's left for us and to his readings. But, they say, you know, if you want to find the most drug addled and violence ridden communities in American cities, look for Martin Luther King Boulevard, you know. I mean, sadly, it applies in this instance as well. There's such a huge gap between the power of his life and the potential impact to be had.

Brandon Pope: And still some chains to be broken. 

Jeffrey Wright: Yes, sir.

Brandon Pope: At age 15, Douglass’ life was brutally interrupted again. He was forced to leave Baltimore. He sailed back to the plantation, and was immediately sent to a notorious slave breaker, Edward Covey.

AUDIOBOOK: Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him.

Brandon Pope: Douglass was whipped continually and treated barbarically for six months. Then one day, he resisted.

AUDIOBOOK: At this moment - from whence came the spirit I don't know - I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him.

Brandon Pope: They fought for nearly two hours before Covey relented. 

AUDIOBOOK: This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. I felt as I never felt before. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.

Brandon Pope: Now Ken, when I was learning about Frederick Douglass in school, his fight with Edward Covey was probably the moment that struck me the most as a kid. I remember I actually drew, I drew a scene with my crayons. Yeah, I drew a scene with my crayons of that. And I think that's what latched me on to the Frederick Douglass story to begin with. How important was this fight, Ken?

Ken Morris: The fight was everything. It was an act of of self liberation. And so when he begins to teach himself to read and write that was the first act of self liberation. But this battle, which was an epic, two hour battle, and Frederick knew that he needed to be strategic in the way that he went about defeating Covey. But when he did, you know, while he wasn't physically free from his bondage, he was on his way to being mentally free. And he rose up, and he fought back. And so if you can just imagine this strong, brilliant teenage boy who had had enough. And so, fought back, he won that battle, and Covey never touched him, again for the rest of the time that he'd been hired out. And so it's a battle that certainly resonates with with young people. And I love telling the story, because if you can just really visualize, you know, this young boy, that's just saying, Okay, I'm done with this. A man has been made a slave. But now you've seen how a slave has been made a man.

Brandon Pope: Ooh yes.

David Blight: We gotta remember how talented Douglass was as a writer. He sets up that whole scene, and it's essentially a biblical story. And I gotta remember now, by the time he writes this, he's deeply steeped by then in biblical writings in the King James cadences, and so on. Yeah, that's a resurrection story. Because what precedes it is the story of him, he's just beaten to a pulp. He's lost his will. And he just runs to the woods. He tries to go back to old Thomas Auld and beg for protection and help. And Thomas Auld says, nope, get out of here, you're going back to COVID. And Douglass tail between his legs does go back. But then he just cracks, he just cracks. And it just just takes Covey on. The fight becomes a kind of resurrection through violence, which is a very common theme in our culture. Americans love that resurrection. And that's what westerns are kind of about, in some ways, or at least the old ones: resurrection through violence. So our man here knew what he was doing as a storyteller. Two hours? Eh, who knows, maybe it was 10 minutes, maybe it was one hour, we don't know. But also it is the pivot of the book, as Ken was just saying, it's the pivot of the story. Because after that, he's becoming a man. 

Jeffrey Wright: I think what it represents too, it goes against I think, the mythology of emancipation. You know, all praises to Abraham Lincoln and you know, we're waiting for the white savior, you know, to free the lowly enslaved but it's Douglass exercising agency. If Douglass grabbing the beginnings of freedom, at least freedom of the mind as described earlier too - grabbing it by the throat, and it's about his own recognition of what is necessary and it's taking his future precariously, and literally, into his own hands. And he's doing that not solely against Covey, not solely against this one individual, but against an entire system. You know, he's taken up the cause himself, and getting after it and seeing about it. And I mean, that's, that just speaks more to his heroisms, as well. It's just the clearly incredibly powerful moment.

Brandon Pope: And the courage it takes to assure it's, it gives you chills. 

Ken Morris: Yeah. 


Brandon Pope: More Making Frederick Douglass, in a minute.


David Blight: This kid, in whatever stage we take him at, like every other kid, I think, learned the one thing he was good at. And that was language. I mean, some kids are good at dribbling behind their back, and some are good at whatever... playing a violin. But he learned he was good with language. And that was becoming his his little power in a way he could wield that power on somebody, he was going to do it.

Brandon Pope: Douglass had taken on Covey – and won. 


Brandon Pope: The fight made him a bit of a celebrity amongst the other enslaved people. But Douglass also knew how to read and write, and he used that to speak, to teach, and to fight back.

AUDIOBOOK: In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.

Brandon Pope: He and four friends plotted a bold and dangerous escape. They would steal a canoe, row 70 miles north, through the Chesapeake Bay, to the free state of Pennsylvania. They were immediately found out. They awaited their fates in a nearby jail. Douglass, the ringleader, thought his master Thomas Auld would sell him to a plantation in the Deep South, a life sentence. 

AUDIOBOOK: I thought the possibility of freedom was gone. I was now left to my fate. 

Brandon Pope: But then, another stroke of luck. 

AUDIOBOOK: From some cause or other, he did not send me to Alabama, but concluded to send me back to Baltimore, to live again with his brother Hugh, and to learn a trade.

Brandon Pope: Ken, after Douglass' failed escape attempt, why was he sent back to Baltimore, and not the deep south?

Ken Morris: Back to that divine providence in his favor, and we can call it luck. But there was just something, in my mind, that was happening spiritually in his life that you can look at from his birth until the time he escaped, and he always had people that were there to help him along the way. And of course, he would take advantage of that. And I always want to go back to this idea that it's about self liberation, not just this myth that we've been given in American history that it was several white men sitting around the table that freed the slaves. But as Jeffrey was talking about, the agency that we as a people took for our own liberation. And so I can't explain why he wasn't sent down to the deep south. It was meant that he was sent back to Baltimore.

David Blight: Well, I would just add that the answer to that also lies somewhere deep in the psyche of one Thomas Auld his owner at that point, walked into the jail cell and Easton, Maryland, could have chosen to sell him for between $800 and $1,000 which was a heck of a lot of money at that point. But he sends him to Baltimore for reasons we may never know. One theory has always been that all was really his father, but that's not been proven. Another might be just that, he knew Douglass was a lousy slave. I mean, really he wasn't working out. And it's possible, it's possible that even Auld who was a pretty brutal guy, and himself not very educated, had a weak spot for the 18 year old Fred. It's possible. 

Brandon Pope: In Baltimore, Douglass fell in love with Anna Murray, a free Black woman. She helped him escape, first to Philadelphia and then to New York. 

AUDIOBOOK: I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. 

Brandon Pope: So David, I'll go to you on this one. How did Douglass meet Anna Murray, and how instrumental was she, in Douglass' life and his escape.

David Blight: She was extremely instrumental in his escape. And then ultimately, of course, in his life, as the mother of their five children, and the maker of their home for nearly 44 years. Anna was free, she was actually born free. She had a good job such as it was for a Black woman in Baltimore, working as a domestic servant in the home of a rich white family. I say a good job, a secure job. She wasn't going to make a real living at it. But she had a situation so to speak. She clearly was swept off her feet by this young, handsome guy, and he was by her because two years later, they hatched this escape plot together. And there is evidence that she helped him put together his sailors outfit, his sailors uniform, so to speak, that he escaped in. But his escape was an unusual kind of escape. It is not in any way the traditional underground railroad that people might imagine. He didn’t go from one farm to the next, one site from the next, he planned this all out for himself. But she had her bags packed. She got on the same three trains three steamboats, and came into Lower Manhattan, where she joined Frederick, and they were married about 48 hours later. But this was how Douglass escaped. Anna was very much part of it. She took the same risks that he did, she had the same bravery that he did. And after their marriage, they took a steamer up to Newport, Rhode Island from which they took a carriage all the way to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Brandon Pope: Douglass and Anna Murray settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He became a licensed preacher, made friends with noted abolitionists, and attended anti-slavery meetings. At one meeting, he was unexpectedly invited to speak. 

AUDIOBOOK: It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren - with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide.

Brandon Pope: Ken I want to ask you about this anti slavery convention in Nantucket. I imagine Frederick Douglass was one of the few, if not the only formerly enslaved person who was asked to speak there. Can you tell us about that moment what he said and what effect it had?

Ken Morris: Now he didn't go to the convention with the intention to speak. But when the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters and followers heard that they had this what we would have called, at that time a fugitive slave in the audience. We call those people freedom secrets now, and they asked Frederick, will you just stand up? Tell the audience your story, what was it like to be enslaved, and Frederick wrote in his first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, he said, I was so nervous that first time speaking in front of a white audience, but when he stood up, he had this natural gift for communication. He was charismatic, he was eloquent, he was theatrical and even funny, in talking about some of the descriptions of and the characters that he came into contact with, while he was enslaved. And the Garrisonian's understood that they had this star on their hands, and perhaps Frederick could be a protégé of William Lloyd Garrison. And so they asked him to join the Massachusetts anti slavery society is a paid lecture. And he would travel from town to town, city to city just telling the story. Then he started to have a problem. And that problem was people started to doubt that he had ever been enslaved. They couldn't wrap their minds around what they thought a slave looked and sounded like, and what they were hearing in this eloquent, charismatic, good looking man in Frederick Douglass. So in order to prove he was who he claimed to be, he published that first autobiography, the narrative. And then he had another problem, it becomes a best seller. And that's the last thing that I think you want, is the notoriety of a best selling book, if you're trying to hide from your enslaver because it made him a household name, made him a celebrity, what we would call an A list celebrity today, like a Jeffrey Wright. And, and he, you know, he had to now flee to Europe, really for a couple of years, which became kind of a cooling off period, because his the notary notoriety of that book threatened his freedom.

Jeffrey Wright: Douglass would have been an A+ celebrity. 

Brandon Pope: I know that's right. You know, David, I do want to get to the narrative and talking a little more about that. What did this do for Frederick Douglass? What changes in his life when this happens? We mentioned at this point, this is a best selling book.

David Blight: He could stand up and put that book in his hand, our radio audience can see that I'm actually holding it. He would, he would stand up with a book in his hand and said, This is who I am. You think Black people aren't educated? You think Black people don't write. You think we don't have a history? Yes, we do. And here's my story. And by the way, he was only 23. As Ken was so beautifully saying, 23 when he stands up in Nantucket at that old Athenaeum, and gives that first speech and then invited him back the next morning to speak again, tell some more stories, kid. And by the way, that narrative, did take the world by storm, it sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. There are a lot of authors who would kill to sell 30,000 copies of anything today. Trust me.

Jeffrey Wright: You know, back to this oratory, you know, that he talks about and the ways in which we kind of perceive Lincoln is this almost unimpeachable character, there's a speech that he gives on the unveiling of the Emancipation statue in Lincoln Park in D.C. that is, if there's a better encompassing of the contradictions that Lincoln represented, I haven't read it. It's just extraordinary. It's uh, you know, he holds Lincoln in the highest regard, but he sees him as a man very clearly. And like all men, flawed, and his flaws are very specific to the white supremist character of the nation and of that time. It's just I just, again, telling everybody go read, Douglass, but don't leave that off the off the desk when you're reading it.

David Blight: And if I can take that as a cue.

Brandon Pope: Yeah David go ahead.

David Blight: Boy, Jeffrey, you just set it up. I started my biography of Douglass with that speech I placed to the reader in 1876 and spent, I don't know 10 pages on it, because I to find it. I think it's the second greatest speech after the fourth of July speech, but it's just such a poignant- that, my fellow white citizens, your Abraham Lincoln's children, I and my people are only his stepchildren. I mean, that's not a speech that was just some sort of throwaway occasion. You know, that is an honest speech.

Ken Morris: And he's speaking truth to power when you consider who his audience was incredible, and they must, must have been thinking, why do we invite this guy to speak? We're supposed to be honoring

Jeffrey Wright: I believe Ulysses Grant was in the audience.

David Blight: Grant pulled the chord and unveiled the monument! In fact, I went to grants papers to try to maybe there's some nobody wrote ever What did grants think of this, you know, not a word grant must have gone back to the White House had a cigar and taken a nap.

Jeffrey Wright: And a scotch.


Brandon Pope: Jeffrey can you picture, you know, Frederick Douglass stood out there in front of a crowd public speaking? What do you imagine he would have been like? 

Jeffrey Wright: He for one, he is unimpeachably. credible? Right? Yeah. So he's got an advantage. There are few people in that audience and certainly not the Ulysses S. Grant's of the world, who have a deeper, more personal, but also more evolved understanding of what he's talking about, you know, he's been through a lot. He's been in tougher rooms, than any of the rooms that he's speaking in. So, and this, I think, speaks to another question that we have about the value of returning to these slave narratives. And for Black folks, particularly, you know, there's a shame, I think, that there's a vein of shame that runs through our relationship to that history for for understandable reasons. But what I take from Douglass, you know, as it relates to his ability to be comfortable in any and every room of his time, was the strength that he gathered that he won, from having come out of the circumstances that he emerged out of. I mean that was a, you know, that was man who couldn't be broken.

Brandon Pope: David, let’s talk a little about Abraham Lincoln. How did Douglass influence Abraham Lincoln over the course of his life. Did he move him when it came to the issue of slavery?

David Blight: Well, Douglass and Lincoln had a very testy relationship at first and during the first almost two years of the war, Douglass was a fierce critic of Lincoln's. Douglass wanted the Lincoln administration to act much faster on emancipation than it did. Now they were not in any way warm and bosom friends, and no one should really make the case that they became very close. They didn't. But it's in August of 1863, that Douglass first decides to go to Washington, D.C. and demand and audience with the president. And he got it. He didn't have an invitation, but he got it. He went on that occasion, ostensibly to protest the many discriminations that were being practiced against Black soldiers. That first meeting was a little testy. But Douglass did leave there saying things like, he had never been in the presence of a powerful white man who treated him as an equal as much as Lincoln did. A year later, August of '64, they will have an even more extraordinary meeting at the White House in Lincoln's office at Lincoln's invitation. Because at that point, Lincoln believed, at least to some extent that he probably was going to lose the election. And he wanted the advice of the most prominent, most famous African American leader in the country. Douglass was stunned because Lincoln actually asked Douglass - looked him in the eye and asked him to organize a system of funneling Black people, of funneling slaves, out of the Upper South, into the north behind Union lines into some form of legal freedom in case Lincoln lost the election. That's how serious Lincoln took the likelihood of losing the '64 presidential election. Their relationship went from distant, suspicious, even angry hostility on Douglass' part at the beginning of the war to a much more respectful, even admirable relationship by the end of the war. He was the one Black leader, spokesman, that Lincoln actually reached out to for serious personal advice. And that was a very rare thing at that point in American history.

Brandon Pope: So Jeffrey, I want to ask you, we see a lot of bio pics about historical figures. Why have we not seen a Frederick Douglass film yet? The story we're telling right now just seems ripe for a film. Why do you think we haven't had one yet?

Jeffrey Wright: No, that's a good question. We've seen him appear in a couple of films. In fact, I think it was a Glory happened to be on. And there's a moment of glory, where Frederick Douglass, is there - in the painting on the wall is more animated. It's just incredible. 

David Blight: It’s a bad cameo

Jeffrey Wright: It's incredible.

Ken Morris: Yeah. And also they have they have the white haired statesman when he would have been in his mid 40s.

Jeffrey Wright: I mean, listen, we could we could spend another several hours talking about Hollywood depictions of a figure like Douglass...

David Blight: There is a film in the works. It's been optioned by Netflix and the Obama film company, Higher Ground. It has a director assigned. It has a screenplay that needs a lot of work. My role is just whatever they call me, historian advisor or something. But it takes forever. I mean, Jeffrey, you know this better than anybody. I can't believe they haven't just hired Jeffrey and Ken and I could write the screenplay for God's sake and then we just go from there. Why not? Let's do a seminar for a week. And we'll come out with we'll come out with a screenplay.

Jeffrey Wright: You mean hire me to direct it, yeah? 

David Blight: Right. All right. Yeah, direct it Okay. Fine. 

Jeffrey Wright: Too dashing guy for me. I mean, that was, you see some of those photographs of, you know, just this dashing guy, I don't have the hair anymore.

David Blight: They could arrange that.

Jeffrey Wright: That is true.

Brandon Pope: So let's let's talk larger legacy of Frederick Douglass Can I want to start with you? You know, this is your ancestor here. What to you is the lasting legacy of Frederick Douglass?

Ken Morris: When I think about Frederick Douglass’s lasting legacy it takes me back to my childhood and all the times people came up to me oftentimes with tears in their eyes and they wanted to pinch my cheeks or give me a hug or pat me on the head. And at that time I never really understood the emotional connection that people had to my ancestors, and it was many years later that a woman came up to me after an event and she wanted to tell me that she had read Frederick Douglass’ narrative, and what she wanted to tell me was that these books made her believe that she could do and be anything possible, and if she could thank my ancestors in person she would do that, but since she can’t I become the conduit to saying thank you. But Frederick Douglass' legacy, as far as photography is concerned is very important. He said, when you look at a photograph of me, you're never going to deny that I'm a man worthy of freedom, worthy of citizenship. And I never want to look like a happy, amiable fugitive slave. And so this is why you see him, if you can visualize his look in your mind's eye, you see him with that steely glare that he had looking directly into the camera. You know, when you consider the divisive climate in which we live now, with the political rhetoric and racist and sexist and xenophobic rhetoric that's out there. Frederick Douglass' words, unfortunately, still speak to us today. And I say unfortunately, because we're still dealing with many of the challenges that Frederick Douglass and the other freedom fighters who came before us had to deal with. And you know, I was really disappointed to learn recently, that a school district in Oklahoma had banned Frederick Douglass' narrative from libraries and classrooms. 

Jeffrey Wright: Wow. 

Ken Morris: Conservative driven book bans targeting race and gender and inequality narratives are spreading across the country, you know, in this concerted effort to whitewash the truth about our nation's history and the genocide of Native American people, and the enslavement of people of African descent. And so it's really important that young people have an opportunity to connect to Frederick Douglass' words and his life story, his coming of age story, in the way that so many before us have done. So his legacy still speaks to us, in many ways.

Brandon Pope: David, from your perspective, Frederick Douglass, his legacy.

David Blight: At the core of Douglass's life was this idea that America had a promise in its Crete, that it had not lived up to head had not fulfilled, it looked like it never was gonna fulfill it, then it did. I mean, he's one of those rare reformers or radicals who actually lives in the middle of his life to see his cause triumph. And then he lives long enough to see it all but betrayed. If you think of his life and that kind of trajectory, you realize what you can learn from looking at the life. But last but not least, his legacy lives forever, as others already said, in his words. There are transcended passages, dozens and dozens and dozens of them in Douglass' editorials and Douglass' speeches, and in the autobiographies that are timeless. As Jeffrey was saying, you read a passage by Douglass and you're like, Oh, my God, you know, that's about now. Oh, that's a that's about yesterday, or that's about tomorrow. And, and, and there are many other writers like that, but they're pretty rare. And that's who he really is. He's the person in his words that we will at least always have their, you know, to go back to and rely on and draw from.

Brandon Pope: Jeffrey, in your opinion, the Frederick Douglass legacy, from your perspective,

Jeffrey Wright: I hadn't realized that they had specifically banned this first narrative that's incredible, banned by the same Republicans who claim him as their own. But as far as the the legacy, his Americanness, and his importance and influence on the trajectory of our country is, as central, I think, as any of the men who we call Founding Fathers. Because he, you know it, he makes it his business, to course correct, to right the ship to unto to the extent that it can be the stain of that original sin. I mean, we only truly become America or begin to move toward that more perfect America, by embracing his life, and lives like his and not many, but by embracing his story. He is one of the great Americans, we can only do ourselves service by knowing him, intimately, and doing our best to honor his legacy through our daily lives. So he's a founding father of the American conscious. That's how I view him.

Brandon Pope: A special thank you to all three of you for joining us for this discussion. This has been making Frederick Douglass, obviously one of the most iconic figures in American history. Thank you Jeffrey Wright. Thank you, David Blight. Thank you, Ken Morris for joining us today.

Ken Morris: Thank you.

David Blight: Thanks.

Jeffrey Wright: Appreciate it. My pleasure Brandon.

Brandon Pope: This episode of Making was produced by Justin Bull and Heena Srivastava. I’m your host Brandon Pope. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Special thanks this week to the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. Also be sure to pick up a copy of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David Blight. And of course: the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” by Frederick Douglass. Check out the audio version on Apple Books narrated by Jeffrey Wright. And a big thanks to you, for listening. Be sure to press the subscribe button if you haven’t already, and we’ll see you next week. 

WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.