How Frederick Douglass Became a Trend This Week

A photograph of Frederick Douglass from a series of "Carte de Visites"  produced from his visit to Hillsdale College on January 21, 1863.
A photograph of Frederick Douglass from a series of "Carte de Visites" produced from his visit to Hillsdale College on January 21, 1863.Hillsdale College

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Adam Howard

Frederick Douglass — the black 19th century journalist, dedicated feminist, and radical activist — might not be the most obvious cultural touchstone for President Donald Trump.

And yet the president made the civil rights icon uniquely relevant again this past week by name-checking him — in present-tense terminology — during a sit down with African-American supporters at the White House on the first day of Black History Month.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed,” he said on February 1st, without elaborating with details.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer also attempted to elevate the iconic civil rights hero that same day during his daily press briefing, but when pressed to give specifics, he also didn't provide any.

Related: Analysis: Do We Still Need Black History Month?

“I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made,” Spicer said. “And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”

Since Douglass is, arguably, the most famous black Republican in history, it's not completely surprising that the new president would want to be associated with him, particularly during Black History Month.

But the brief public statements of Spicer and Trump have inspired mocking rebukes (including a satirical "tweets" from @realFrederickDouglass — which may or may not have ever existed), questions about the depth of their knowledge, and skepticism about whether Douglass, an escaped slave turned abolitionist, would be welcome in the modern iteration of the Republican party.

Besides underscoring the Trump team's history of awkward, and sometimes insensitive, statements on matters of race, the Douglass flap raises questions about what is the proper historical context to place the abolitionist hero.

"When you hear people like Trump invoke Frederick Douglass, it's very clear that they have no appreciation of his life-long radicalism," author and historian James Oakes told NBC News on Friday. "He was advocating an active government role for equal rights from the moment emancipation was clearly accomplished."

Robert Benz, the co-founder of the non-profit Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, shared a statement from the descendants of the American icon on the Huffington Post Wednesday, which highlighted some of the "amazing" things their ancestor advocated for, including, pointedly: "Arguing against unfair U.S. immigration restrictions."

"Like the President, we use the present tense when referencing Douglass’s accomplishments because his spirit and legacy are still very much alive, not just during Black History Month, but every month," the Douglass family wrote.

Benz told NBC News that their organization has been "inundated" with requests ever since the Spicer and Trump remarks, and the attention could not come at a more auspicious time, since they're looking to print and distribute a million copies of Douglass' classic "Narrative of a Slave" to young people around the country to coincide with his centennial in February of 2018.

"The family is happy to embrace any political party that is willing to talk and disseminate his work and his ideas," Benz said. "And whichever one wants to do that we’re happy to embrace them in that effort.

Related: 'I Am Not Your Negro': Baldwin Doc Affirms Troubling Truths of Race in America

"We looked at this as a tremendous opportunity for Americans to learn about of their greatest historical figures," he added.

Meanwhile, Oakes believes that the recent resurgence of GOP affinity for Douglass -- including an anti-Obama Frederick Douglass Foundation and Tea Party-backed minority outreach group called the Frederick Douglass Republicans -- is an effort to "cover up the reality of the party of the 21st century."

According to Oakes, the modern GOP would be "completely alien" to Douglass, and in fact, he had grown somewhat disenchanted even with the 19th century iteration because it had begun to abandon its radical roots.

"It was a party he felt an affinity towards and had a legacy he respected, but which also frustrated him constantly," said Oakes. "That may be the way he would feel about the current Democratic party."

Once a bastion of pro-civil rights policies, the Republican party began to move away from those issues in the 1890s, and then, via several more waves (the New Deal 1930s, the turbulent 1960s), their black base of support eroded to the point where it is today.

African-Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since 1964, and President Trump drew just 8 percent of black voters in last November's general election, although he has predicted that he will win 95 percent of that community when he seeks re-election.

Related: Frederick Douglass Was the Most Photographed American of the 19th Century

Present-day Republicans rarely if ever promote their liberal past, with the prominent exception of Douglass — who right wing provocateur Dinesh D'Souza recently compared to Rep. John Lewis amid his feud with Trump.

"The left's false narrative inflates minor figures like John Lewis, Democrat, & downplays major ones like Frederick Douglass, Republican," D'Souza tweeted, before launching an attack on the legacy of the late Rosa Parks.

For Oakes, who wrote a book about Douglass' relationship with President Abraham Lincoln ("The Radical and the Republican"), the attempts to in his words "defang" the anti-slavery advocate are unfortunate but he also thinks refocusing on his legacy could be edifying for progressives disheartened in the aftermath of Trump's victory.

"I think especially in his early years as an activist in the 1840s when it looked so bleak for the anti-slavery cause, he did not give up, he maintained his commitment," said Oakes. "I don't think he was by nature pessimistic but he was always realistic about the odds."

"Especially right now, progressives should not cede patriotism to the right," he added.