Once upon a time, in the now-distant 1890s, and after a long and arduous fund raising campaign notable for the $1,000 donation of the President of Haiti, a sculpture to honor and remember Frederick Douglass was begun. Sidney Wells Edwards was the sculptor. The completed monument was dedicated on June 9th, 1899, five years after Douglass died. 10,000 people attended the ceremony. Teddy Roosevelt, then New York’s Governor, was here.
The monument was located at what is now St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. In 1910 the site, in the upper left portion of this map, looked like this:
The Frederick Douglass Monument, in front of the train station and not far from Franklin Square.
Just a block from the train station, the site was selected because of its prominence. As Mayor George E. Warner observed at the dedication, “It is fitting that it should stand near a great portal of our city where the thousands who enter it may see that she is willing to acknowledge to the world that her most illustrious citizen was not a white man.”
As a side note one potential site, in the Olmsted designed Plymouth Park (now Lunsford Circle), perhaps the oldest neighborhood in the city, was rejected by the neighbors.
Plymouth Park, in the Corn Hill neighborhood, 1931.
For years after the dedication the monument was the site of celebrations and gatherings.
1911 – the Grand Army of the Republic convention.
Celesta Foster of New Orleans about to lay a wreath, 1911. Denis Washington holds the umbrella.
A celebration at the monument, 1924.
After 42 years at St. Paul Street and Central Avenue, and mostly because of the endless railroad traffic nearby, the monument had become “grimy and sooty.” And so a committee was formed, and a decision was made to move the monument to Highland Park. The place in the park for the statue was within a few hundred yards of where Douglass had once lived, on South Avenue. Not exactly the apex of city life, but away from the grime of the trains.
And so today the statue stands, as it has for 75 years, in the park. It was rededicated on September 4th, 1941.
Not exactly a compelling location, but there it stands.
In reflecting on this story, I have found myself longing for a new home for Mr. Douglass, a place that is again a great portal of our city. Maybe where the Inner Loop used to be, because he once lived at 297 Alexander – don’t bother looking it up, it’s a parking lot – just a few feet away. Or perhaps at the entrance to our new train station, soon to become a fitting, and central, urban threshold.
Any significant city is measured in some way by its monuments and memorials. These comprise the most important chapters in the narrative of any place. I sense that we are not properly serving a critical moment in our urban story with Mr. Douglass off in Highland Park. He seems so forlorn and abandoned there. We all need to see him, and reflect on his life, every day. And we need his wisdom, now more than ever.
“Men do not live by bread alone. So with nations. They are not saved by art, but by honesty, not by the gilded splendors of wealth but by the hidden treasures of manly virtue; not by the multitudinous gratification of the flesh, but by the celestial guidance of the spirt.”
Frederick Douglass, 1857.
“I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.”
Frederick Douglass, 1869.