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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass!: A Commemorative Blog from the National Museum of African Art


*Update: ABC Channel 7 aired a segment on March 14, 2018 featuring the history of Frederick Douglass and the National Museum of African Art and the silk screen prints by Ben Shahn that are discussed in this blog.  Archivists Eden Orelove and Amy Staples, and Museum Director Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford were interviewed for the story. 



In recognition of the 200th anniversary of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ birth date (b. February 14, 1818), the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, would like to share our significant collections and history related to this distinguished African American civil rights leader.

Founded by Warren Robbins in 1964, the Museum of African Art (now the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art) was originally located in the Frederick Douglass House at A Street NE on Capitol Hill.  

Frederick Douglass and family in front of Capitol Hill residence, circa 1870s. 
Copy print from Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In February 1966, the Museum established the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History to sponsor exhibits and lectures reflecting the contributions of African and African American people to the history and culture of the United States.    


Pamphlet explaining the origins and purpose of the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.



Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts & History Dedication, September 21, 1966. Left-Right: Frances Humphrey Howard (seated), Founding Board Member and sister of Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Justice of the Supreme Court; Harry McPherson, Special Counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson; Commissioner John B. Duncan; Ambassador Edward S. Peal of Liberia, and Joseph Palmer II, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Accession 11-001. 

One year before the founding of the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, Robbins asked American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) to create a print of Douglass to be used for fund-raising purposes.  On October 21, 1964, Robbins wrote to Shahn, expressing his exuberance for the project:


“It is really marvelous that you are willing to do a sketch of Douglass, who to my mind was one of the great men of the world in the 19th century and one of the giants in American history.  The Museum is in the position to make him a great deal better known to people who ordinarily wouldn’t know very much about him.”  (Image 19 on page 2, Ben Shahn papers, Archives of American Art). 


Robbins sent Shahn 12 pictures of Douglass, but rather than producing one print, as Robbins had requested, Shahn created four!  The prints were unveiled at the Museum of African Art on February 10, in connection with National African American History Week and were sold for $50 a piece or $500 for the set.   


















Ben Shahn,  Frederick Douglass, silk screen, 1965.  Marshall Janoff collection, EEPA 2017-004-0099 to 0102, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

With a limited 250-print run, the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives’ holdings of the silk screen prints are one of the few remaining complete sets.  The White House was gifted a set during Obama’s presidency, and the Supreme Court was also provided a set.  Chief Justice Warren E. Berger sent a note of thanks to Robbins on March 27, 1974. (Image 65 on page 5, Ben Shahn papers, Archives of American Art). 


Warren Robbins (left) displaying Shahn's silk screen prints to D.C. Mayor Walter Washington, circa 1973. Smithsonian Institution Archives.  Accession 11-0001.













Pamphlet depicting the four Shahn prints for sale at the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

















Robbins, who founded the Museum to encourage cross-cultural communication, found a like-mind in Shahn, whom he described in a 1986 piece entitled “Ben Shahn on Human Rights” (August Savage Memorial Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, September 16, 1986).

“He had a strong interest
in cross-cultural communication
in bringing people together
in bridging the gap between groups of people
in reminding people
            of their commonality as human beings
            of the common destiny of black and white
                        in this country
                        and indeed in the world."

(Warren M. Robbins, Speaking of Introductions: Vignettes of a Cultural Pioneer. Compiled and edited by Roulhac Toledano, Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication: Washington, D.C., 2005: p. 53-54).

Robbins also saw these ideals in the writings and orations of Douglass, and continued to promote Douglass' vision of peace even after the opening of the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History.  In 1967, he helped produce a stamp (now held by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum) commemorating the 150th anniversary of Douglass’ birth.  Working with Congressman Frank Horton and the U.S. Postal Department, Robbins ensured that the stamp was released on time.  Robbins originally proposed that a design by Shahn be used; instead, the stamp was designed by Walter DuBois Richards and depicts an engraving by Arthur W. Dintaman that is based on a photograph of Douglass.






Frederick Douglass commemorative stamp, printed on February 14, 1967.  Designed by Walter DuBois Richards.  Vignette engraved by Arthur W. Dintaman and lettering engraved by Kenneth C. Wilram.  Object number 1980.2493.14020, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Poet Langston Hughes wrote to Robbins, suggesting that rather than giving a statement about Douglass, he should share Hughes’ poem (Image 32 on page 3, Ben Shahn papers, Archives of American Art), “Frederick Douglas”, at the celebration of the stamp’s release on February 14, 1967.  Ultimately, Robbins gave his own speech, and Congressman Horton quoted Robbins’ statements at the event, which the Frederick Douglass Institute had coordinated at the church on Capitol Hill near the Museum of African Art.  He described Douglass’ life as “a great epic poem in the pages of American historical literature” and called him “the original ‘freedom rider’ and ‘sit-inner,” noting that:

"He [Douglass] always held himself proud; he would not be subservient to any man.  He advocated agitation when agitation was necessary, but behind it there was a clear sense of conviction and direction; a depth of historical understanding; compassion for the unwise and short-sighted; and ultimately, a deep desire for peace and social harmony among all Americans.”  (Warren M. Robbins, Man for all Reasons: Letters of a Visionary, "Frederick Douglass Anniversary," compiled by Roulhac Toledono, Washington, D.C.: Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication, 2014: p. 80-81). 

Today, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art continues to promote the goals and messages of cross-cultural understanding and communication among people that Frederick Douglass inspired in all of us. 

Additional links:

The Ben Shahn papers, held at the Archives of American Art, include more correspondence between Shahn and Robbins.   

The Smithsonian Institution Archives holds the Warren M. Robbins Papers.

To read more about the Frederick Douglass commemorative stamp released in 1967, see this description, written by Roger S. Brody, National Museum of Postal History, Smithsonian Institution.

By Eden Orelove, Photo Archivist, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of  African Art, Smithsonian Institution

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