Carte-de-visite of Frederick Douglass, late 19th century. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, the first museum in New York City, brings to life Frederick Douglass’ vision of freedom, citizenship, and equal rights in a new ongoing special installation, Our Composite Nation: Frederick Douglass’ America, opening February 11, 2022. Inspired by the speech “Composite Nation,” which Douglass delivered around the country in the years following the Civil War, this timely display is based on research from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by New-York Historical Scholar Trustee David W. Blight. The mission of this new nation, Douglass declared, was to provide the world “a composite, perfect illustration of the unity of the human family.” For what was the U.S., he said, but “the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world?”
Beginning in 1869 as Reconstruction unfolded across the country, Douglass took his “Composite Nation” speech on the road and shared his passionate vision for a reborn America, where rights and freedoms would be extended to all—regardless of race, gender, national origin, or faith. Lectures were popular in America, and Douglass was in high demand, traveling from the Northeast to the Midwest. Few speakers had his compelling personal story, skill at the podium, or moral authority. In his speech, Douglass advocated for absolute equality, which meant equal rights that were specific, inclusive, and protected by law. Yet during his lecture stop in Iowa, a hotel refused to serve him because of his race. This reinforced Douglass’ belief that rights and fair treatment must be fought for every day at every level, from constitutional amendments to life’s routine encounters.
On display is a range of artifacts and documents that illustrate Douglass’ vision during the postwar years when his goal seemed within reach. Among the highlights are illustrations from the popular press of the time and scrapbooks of articles by or about Douglass compiled by his sons that also documented his inexhaustible drive and never-ending commitment to a more just America. A speech excerpt from Douglass’ contemporary Frances Ellen Watkins Harper brings the question of gender to Douglass’ ideas about racial equality. His advocacy for Chinese immigration―a decade before the Chinese Exclusion Act―is also demonstrated through political cartoons and a copy of the newspaper Chinese American, a publication by Wong Chin Foo that asserted Chinese immigrants’ right to belong in the United States. Douglass argued the Chinese should be granted every freedom Americans expect—to become citizens, to vote, to run for office.
Also on view is the maquette of a statue of Douglass that was erected on the campus of the University of Maryland in 2015. The model was gifted to the late Congressman John Lewis and is on long-term loan to New-York Historical. A recreation of the Douglass statue that greets visitors to the Museum at the 77th Street entrance, painted to be lifelike, is also on display.
Our Composite Nation: Frederick Douglass’ America is curated by Marci Reaven, vice president of history exhibits, Lily Wong, associate curator, and Dominique Jean-Louis, associate curator, New-York Historical.
On February 15, New-York Historical Scholar Trustee and award-winning author David W. Blight and renowned scholar Eddie S. Glaude Jr. bring to life Frederick Douglass’ speech, “Composite Nation,” as they discuss what unity means today and where we stand as a country in relation to the legacy of Douglass’ words. The program will also be livestreamed. Private group tours of Our Composite Nation and other exhibitions at New-York Historical are also available to be booked. A digital family guide to help young visitors learn more about Douglass and his legacy will be available. Related family programs will take place throughout the installation’s run. For additional details, visit nyhistory.org/childrens-museum.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.