Frederick Douglass, A Shakespearean in Washington

Frederick Douglass portraitIn his life and times Frederick Douglass was known around the world as an orator, abolitionist, suffragist, and reformist. While living in Washington, DC, where he spent the last quarter-century of his life, he was also known to many as an admirer of William Shakespeare.

Today, tens of thousands of people visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site each year at Cedar Hill, Douglass’s home in Anacostia, where the library shelves hold volumes of Shakespeare’s complete works and a framed print of Othello and Desdemona hangs above the mantle in the west parlor.

Douglass frequently alluded to Shakespeare in his oratory and was known to attend performances of Shakespeare at local Washington theatres. On at least two occasions Douglass served as a thespian for the Uniontown Shakespeare Club, a community theater company.

Furthermore, as a philanthropic patron of the arts, Frederick Douglass used his networks and influence within Washington society to support and advance the careers of Black artists, nearly a century before the Black Arts Movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Uniontown Shakespeare Club

Initially purchasing a home on Capitol Hill in the early 1870s, while serving as Marshal of the District of Columbia, Frederick Douglass subsequently bought a mansion atop a sprawling 8-acre estate across the Anacostia River in the fall of 1877 in a suburban development called Uniontown.

Uniontown, today known as Historic Anacostia, was a working-class neighborhood in close proximity to the Washington Navy Yard and campus of the U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane. It is not known exactly when the Uniontown Shakespeare Club was formed and by whom, but its presence was part of a national trend.

Shakespeare scholar Katherine Scheil estimates that there were more than 500 Shakespeare clubs in American small towns and metropolitan areas at the turn of the twentieth century; she writes that these clubs “took an active role in civic and community life and engaged in a number of initiatives designed to improve the cultural, social, and intellectual climate of their communities.”[1]

Douglass participated at least twice in the club’s readings.

In an unfinished letter dated December 21, 1877, to “My dear Friend”, Douglass writes, “I spoke to a very … elegant audience at Mt. Pleasant Wednesday night, and read with the Uniontown Shakespeare Club last night.”

He continues, “The play was the Merchant of Venice and my part [was] Shylock. This is my second meeting with the Club. I find it very pleasant and entertaining.”[2]

It is unclear whether Douglass continued to participate in readings with the neighborhood-based Uniontown Shakespeare Club, or the larger citywide Shakespeare Club, founded in Washington in 1870.[3] While Douglass was out of the country serving the State Department as Minister to Haiti, the Anacostia Shakespeare Club disbanded in the spring of 1891.[4]

Henrietta Vinton Davis
Henrietta Vinton Davis

Douglass and Tragedienne Henrietta Vinton Davis

In April 1883, Henrietta Vinton Davis, a classically trained actress in her early 20s, was preparing to make her theatrical debut in Washington. But before Davis took the public stage Douglass entertained a small private gathering at Cedar Hill.

A local paper reported, “Hon. Frederick Douglass invited a few friends last evening to his residence in Uniontown to meet Henrietta Vinton Davis, the young colored lady who is to make her debut in dramatic recitals on Wednesday evening, 25th instant, at Marini’s Hall.”

According to the Washington Bee, “[O]ne of the most fashionable and select audiences that Washington could afford,” attended Davis’ debut. Following introductory remarks by Douglass, Davis, noted for her “moorish color,” performed excerpts from a number of theatrical works including Romeo and Juliet.[5]

After she recited “very effectively scenes from Romeo and Juliet, [and] As You Like It,” among other dramatic readings, Douglass “made a speech of congratulation, and predicted a successful future for Miss Davis.”[6]

Following a tour of theatres throughout the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and New England, Davis returned to Washington, where she made a memorable appearance at Ford’s Theatre in May 1884 alongside a number of amateur actors, including Medal of Honor recipient Powhatan Beaty. “Most of the prominent colored citizens of Washington were present,” the National Republican reported, including Frederick Douglass and members of his family seated in a lower box.[7] Scenes from The Tragedy of Macbeth and The Tragedy of King Richard the third were performed.

“In my judgement she is one of the best dramatic readers in the country – and the best colored reader that ever came before the American people,” Douglass wrote in a widely circulated letter of support for Davis, coupled with a commendation from famed international Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge.[8]

Shakespeare and the Legacy of Frederick Douglass

These historical details about Frederick Douglass’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare performance and his support of talented young artists contribute to a more nuanced and fuller representation of Frederick Douglass — as a Shakespearean – that has often been obscured by a propensity of individual scholars and institutions to mythologize one of the most consequential Americans of the 19th century.

“No legacy is so rich as honesty,” Shakespeare wrote in All’s Well That Ends Well.

To properly honor the legacy of Frederick Douglass we must honestly know the richness and fullness of his life, including his regard for works of the Bard of Avon.

[1] Scheil, Katherine. “Shakespeare Clubs and Commemoration.” Critical Survey, Vol 22, No. 2, Shakespeare and the Cultures of Commemoration. (2010) P. 62 – 75.

[2] Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress, General Correspondence. 1877 July – December. Letter dated 21 December, 1877.

[3] “Shakespeare Club.” 23 April 1894. P. 6 Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) The article mentions in 1894 the club is celebrating the “twenty-fourth year of its life.”

[4] “ANACOSTIA.” (3rd column).  March 25, 1891. P. 8. Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.)

[5] “MUSICAL AND DRAMATIC.” 28 April 1883. P. 3. Washington Bee (Washington, D.C.).

[6] “Reception to Miss Henrietta Vinton Davis.” 24 April 1883. P. 1 Evening Critic (Washington, D.C.)

[7] “A CAST OF COLOR.” 8 May 1884. P. 1 National Republican. (Washington, D.C.)

[8] Majors, Monroe Alpheus.(1893)  Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities. Donohue & Henneberry. Chicago. P. 104 – 105.