SALEM — David Blight never had any intentions of writing a full life biography on Frederick Douglass.
“I had written my first book on Douglass as my dissertation in graduate school… I had edited the edition of his first two autobiographies, I had written essays on Douglass,” Blight listed. “Douglass was some piece or part of virtually every other book I’ve ever written. So I had no intention of ever attempting a full life of this guy.”
That was the case, until Blight traveled to Savannah, Georgia.
While there, the historian was introduced to a collector who showed him his Frederick Douglass collection that he had been working on since the 1970s. A part of this collection was a scrapbook that held letters, pictures, and clippings from the abolitionist’s life that had been compiled by two of Douglass’ sons.
Blight calls it “blind good luck.”
On Monday night, community members congregated at the city's Tabernacle Church to hear historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight discussed his journey in archiving the life and writing of Frederick Douglass as a part of the Salem Athenaeum's annual Adams Lecture.
The Athanaeum's Adams Lecture is an educational program that brings professionals with a range of expertise to the North Shore to discuss topics related to American history with a focus on New England.
"We always try to have important topics and important moments in history," said Jean Marie Procious, the library and cultural center's executive director. "We try to bring someone who is well-established in their field and can give a deep perspective."
The evening had audience members immersed in the history of the country's abolitionist leader as Blight touched on the life of Frederick Douglass – both young and old.
“We tend to know that young and heroic Douglass, the one who is a slave for 20 years then escapes and becomes the great orator when he is so young,” said Blight.
Douglass writes that narrative himself, explained Blight.
“But it is the last third of his life, from the Civil War to when he dies 1895, most Americans know nothing,” said Blight. “That last third of his life has never been seemingly as interesting. It is the aging man and he is growing old.”
His book captures the whole.
In addition to being the Sterling Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, Blight is a leading expert on the 19th century abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass.
His knowledge surpasses most on the subject, landing him the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History for his recently published biography "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom."
According to the Pulitzer Prize website, Blight's biography is a "breathtaking history that demonstrates the scope of Frederick Douglass’ influence through deep research on his writings, his intellectual evolution and his relationships."
A biography that took Blight a decade to write, the historian admits that it was a difficult because as a biographer, he had to make sense out of someone else's life and actions.
“What you are going to do you have to impose order into someone else’ life,” said Blight. “But the trouble with this character is he imposed a great deal of his own order.”
Blight explained that Douglass wrote three autobiographies.
After being separated from his slave mother as an infant, Douglass lived on a Maryland plantation where he was a slave for 20 years.
In 1838, he would escape slavery and later become a leader in the abolitionist movement as a skilled orator, writer, and statesman.
Douglass would go down in history as a man who overcame the odds and fought for the freedom of all.
Blight has dedicated most of his professional life to archiving the life and writing of Douglass, receiving numerous accolades for his research including the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Prize.
But amid all of the awards and acknowledgements received over the years, Bright longs to ask Douglass an age old question, “What are you most proud of?”
He speculated the abolitionist’s answer would relate to his dedication to writing.
“He was a prophetic genius with words,” exclaimed Blight.
When it came to finding the structure of his biography, Blight was determined to find balance in every chapter of his book between Douglass’ public and private life.
“Most days we live public and private life,” said Blight. “If you are writing a biography about someone that is how the story should be.”
From seasoned historians to high school students, audience members of Monday evening’s lecture left inspired by Blight’s in-depth research and dedication to one man’s life.
“Frederick Douglass symbolizes what it means to stand up and speak up for something that is right even people are against him,” said St. John’s Prep freshman Colin Vaughan, 14, of Andover.
“He is an important figure in political history, I believe, that should be more recognized and someone that everyone should look up to.”
Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-338-2527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.