Anti-slavery freedom fighter Frederick Douglass to be commemorated in Edinburgh


Historic Environment Scotland will unveil a plaque in honour of Douglass, the first black figure recognised by the Commemorative Plaque Scheme

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, the 19th century abolitionist, campaigner for black suffrage and civil rights icon, will become the first historic figure to be honoured by the Historic Environment Scotland’s 2018 Commemorative Plaque Scheme.

To coincide with Black History Month and the 200th anniversary of his birth, Douglass – an escaped slave, orator, writer and statesman whose ideas would be pivotal in the United States before, during and after the American Civil War – will be the first black person recognised by the commemoration scheme since its beginning in 2012.

The plaque will be unveiled at a ceremony in November at 33 Gilmore Place in Edinburgh, the address at which Douglass once lived while acting as Scotland’s anti-slavery agent.

Prior to the unveiling, a new exhibition detailing Douglass and his family’s involvement with transatlantic abolitionism and social justice campaign, as well as other African-American freedom fighters who came to Scotland, was launched at the National Library of Scotland last week.

“Scotland is a blaze of anti-slavery agitation.” Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Douglass arrived in Scotland during the 1840s, at which time the recently established Free Church was being denounced by abolitionists for accepting donations from US slaveowners. Douglass visited and spoke in cities and towns including Glasgow, Arbroath, Ayr, Falkirk, Fenwick, Greenock, Hawick, Kirkcaldy, Montrose, Paisley, Perth and Dundee, where demand to see his speeches was so high that tickets had to be issued.

Douglass wrote in 1846: “Scotland is a blaze of anti-slavery agitation – the Free Church and Slavery are the all-engrossing topics…The Free Church is in a terrible stew. Its leaders thought to get the slaveholders’ money and bring it home, and escape censure. They had no idea that they would be followed and exposed. Its members are leaving it, like rats escaping from a sinking ship. There is a strong determination to have the slave money sent back, and the Union broken up. In this feeling all religious denominations participate. Let slavery be hemmed in on every side by the moral and religious sentiments of mankind, and its death is certain.”

Thomas Knowles, Head of Grants at Historic Environment Scotland, commented ahead of the plaque’s unveiling: “The Frederick Douglass plaque is a worthy addition to our list of historic figures commemorated over the last six years. His story allows us to reflect on one of the darker chapters of our history, so we can recognise and learn about Scotland’s role in the 19th Century international slave trade.

“We recognise that traditional methods of commemoration have not always reflected the diversity of Scotland’s population, and have often overlooked the contribution of minority groups.” HES Head of Grants Thomas Knowles

“We recognise that traditional methods of commemoration have not always reflected the diversity of Scotland’s population, and have often overlooked the contribution of minority groups. We hope that this award, which sees the first black person to be honoured through the Commemorative Plaque Scheme, will be a step forward to redress this imbalance.”

In 2016, controversy arose over the historical legacy of Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who played a significant role in delaying Britain’s abolition of slavery and is commemorated by a statue in Edinburgh. Activist and Open Democracy co-editor Adam Ramsay protested the current memorial by gluing his own plaque to the bottom of the statue, stating that Dundas “crushed rebellious demands for democracy”, was “impeached for the embezzlement of public funds”, and “succeeded in delaying the abolition of slavery”.

Historic Environment Scotland has more recently also been the subject of controversy, after the organisation refused to grant permission for the All Under One Banner demonstration in Edinburgh this month to assemble in Holyrood Park on the grounds that they are “apolitical”.

Celeste-Marie Bernier, a professor at Edinburgh University, who has researched the life and works of Frederick Douglass and his family for two decades, nominated Douglass for the plaque.

READ MORE: ‘Completely unacceptable’: Historian Michael Fry slammed by fellow plaque panellist for slavery comments in Henry Dundas statue debate

Professor Bernier commented: “Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he was reborn in freedom as Frederick Douglass, taking his new surname from James Douglas in Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.

“All his life, Frederick Douglass saw in James Douglas – one of the chief commanders during the Scottish Wars of Independence – a kindred spirit who was equally committed to the overthrow of tyranny, despotism and oppression. He dedicated his life to the conviction: “Right is of no sex, truth is of no color – God is the Father of Us All, and All We are Brethren.”

During the US Black History month in 2017, questions were raised about whether the current US President Donald Trump actually knew who Frederick Douglass was, after he described the abolitionist as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more.”

Picture courtesy of Robert