Frederick Douglass was born a slave in February of 1818. Although no official record of his birthday exists, it is commonly attributed to today, Valentine’s Day, because his mother called him her “little valentine.”
FFL has repeatedly referenced and honored Douglass for his contributions to both the abolitionist and suffragist causes. He was a longtime friend of both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the latter of whom, as we noted three weeks ago, spoke out in support of his marriage to Helen Pitts at a time when interracial marriage was outlawed throughout most of the United States.
But what you might not know is that Douglass is widely considered to be the most photographed American of the 19th century. There are 160 known photographs of Douglass, from just after he escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, to his deathbed in 1895. President Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, has a comparably paltry 126 recorded photographs.
At a time when Black Americans were frequently depicted using the most offensive of racist imagery, most infamously in minstrel shows, Douglass felt obligated to present an honest portrayal of his race. Photography was still revolutionary technology, and with the photo editing software we now take for granted decades away, Douglass observed that it was a far more objective art form than others: “Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features.”
Douglass also noted that unlike a professionally commissioned portrait, a photograph was widely accessible to the public, regardless of race or class: “The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”
Indeed, as we reach the midpoint of Black History Month, we celebrate the 203rd birthday of a man who knew that our beauty as humans came from inside. Ever the pragmatist, however, Frederick Douglass knew that many people would need to see him and his peers’ beauty on the outside first. This Valentine’s Day, may we all love one another both inside and out — beginning in the womb.
Because women deserve better,
Damian J. Geminder
Director of Public Education & Editor
Feminists for Life of America