In the 1840s, when Frederick Douglass was a young man embarking on the career that would make him one of the nation’s most famous social reformers, he made his home in Lynn.
Douglass’s involvement in the abolitionist movement began before then, but it was in Lynn where he did the work that would make his name known throughout Massachusetts and around the country.
This Valentine’s Day marks the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birthday, and the people of Lynn are honoring him and his accomplishments. “LynnDouglass200” is a yearlong celebration of the famous abolitionist and will coincide with events in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Rochester, N.Y., and New Bedford, where Douglass also lived.
Thomas Dalton is a former member of the board of the Lynn Historical Society and the author of the new book “Frederick Douglass: The Lynn Years.” In doing his research, Dalton said he learned more about how Douglass developed into the figure we know today.
“When he came to Lynn, he was virtually unknown. It’s while he’s in Lynn that he hits on themes he comes back to later in his life.” Dalton said. “By the time he leaves he’s renowned — he’s a force.”
Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1818. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but later in his life he chose Feb. 14 as his birthday. With the help of his future wife, Anna Murray, he escaped slavery in 1838.
The couple moved to New Bedford and started to build their family. While there, Douglass was formally introduced to abolitionist thought. He began speaking in churches and halls to mostly black crowds until he was asked to give what would become one of his most famous speeches to a white crowd in Nantucket.
Impressed by his oratory skills, members of the American Anti-Slavery Society asked Douglass to become a traveling lecturer and encouraged him to settle in Lynn. The city was a hotbed of anti-slavery activism and a safe haven for free blacks.
“In Lynn, Douglass got a big network of support,” Dalton said. “He became well known in the city and there were a lot of really important abolitionists who supported him as well as newspaper editors and local people who supported him.”
Lynn native Julia Greene is a member of the committee that organized “LynnDouglass200.” Greene said it’s about time Lynn recognized one of its most iconic community members.
“Lynn doesn’t celebrate its history the way it should. We have this incredible history around Douglass and most people don’t know about it,” Greene said. “We’re rightly stepping forward and taking claim of our history.”
The celebrations begin with a birthday party for Douglass at Lynn City Hall on Feb. 14. Over the course of the year, Lynn will host a Juneteenth celebration, a Black History Month film festival at the Community Minority Cultural Center, and its eighth annual reading of Frederick Douglass’ Nantucket speech. Other activities include tours through Pine Grove Cemetery to visit the graves of Douglass’s friends and other prominent abolitionists.
A mural on the wall of the LynnArts building on Exchange Street — years in the making — includes Douglass in a prominent position at the top.
The committee will be updating the plaque at the Frederick Douglass bandstand to depict him at the age he was when he lived in Lynn. The Committee also plans to put plaques in his honor around the city.”
Douglass lived in Lynn for nearly a decade, and although he was on the road for months at a time lecturing throughout New England, he and his family still made their mark in the city.
Douglass spoke often at the Lyceum building on Market Street and was involved in local churches in and around the city. According to accounts of his time in Lynn, he and his wife were fond of playing the violin together and would often put on shows for the neighbors.
He was good friends with the Hutchinsons, a famous family of musicians who lived at High Rock Tower, and would visit them whenever he was in town. It was in Lynn that Douglass wrote his hugely successful autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.”
From the front door of his home on Harrison Court, Douglass could see the railroad station where he would board trains to his lectures. In a famous incident at the station, Douglass was forcibly removed from a train for refusing to sit in the colored section.
As part of the commemoration, the city plans a gathering where Douglass was ejected off the train on Sept. 28, the anniversary of the incident. The station at Exchange Street is still there today. Julia Greene said she hopes to erect a mural and plaque at the site.
“Events like this can only uplift people in Lynn and remind them of the rich history we’ve had on our own streets,” Greene said.
Dalton said he believes Lynn often gets overlooked in histories about Douglass, but that the years he spent in the city were seminal.
“Lynn is where he launched his career as an abolitionist,” said Dalton. “It’s where he became, if you will, Frederick Douglass.”Zipporah Osei can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org