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Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author, ‘Living Historian’ Bring Frederick Douglass to Life

David BlightStanding at a podium in Creighton University’s Mike and Josie Harper Center Thursday night, Frederick Douglass spoke of the country’s evils and of his hope that it could rise above them.

“I look forward to the time when there shall be one law, one justice, one ultimate fold, for all the people of the United States,” said the 19th century orator and abolitionist.

Douglass, as impersonated by “living historian” Michael Crutcher, read excerpts from an 1893 speech he gave in Omaha in which he railed against the explosion in lynchings of black men that took place in the South throughout the 1890s.

The presentation preceded a lecture by author and historian David Blight, PhD, who spoke about his newest biography of Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which was recently awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History. The event was hosted by Creighton’s Kingfisher Institute in partnership with the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Blight, a professor of history and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, is considered one of the nation’s leading scholars on Douglass.

“We don’t always travel together,” Blight, referring to Crutcher as Douglass, joked. “Actually, we do, but he’s not always here in person. I wish.”

Blight’s biography illuminates Douglass in his later years. In the decades after the Civil War, after the country had abandoned Reconstruction and cleared the way for Jim Crow discrimination in the South, Douglass traveled widely as a lecturer, speaking about issues facing African American citizens.

In the 1890s, as many as 200-300 African Americans, usually men who were falsely accused of assaulting white women, were lynched every year in the American South, Blight said.

By the time he delivered his speech in Omaha in November 1893, Douglass was in his 70s and in poor health. The address was a version of Douglass’ oration, “The Lesson of Hour,” in which he argued that African Americans were not to blame for the racial tension and violence.

“To get any sense of the injustice, the horrible sense of betrayal Douglass felt over this at this late stage in his life -- after living through the victory of emancipation, the victory of the Civil War, the recrafting of the American Constitution -- to live long enough to see this … ” Blight said, “you almost have to see the pain in the words.”

Blight also spoke of Douglass’ reputation as a literary giant of his day and the man’s skillful use of photography to craft a public image that would force white people of the time to set aside their prejudices.

Douglass’ legacy, Blight said, continues to inspire for “his sheer endurance of racism. His endurance of the conditions and circumstances of American life in the 19th century, and his ability to convert that endurance into keeping that long view of history.”

“You have to just come back to the fact that Douglass’ core beliefs, core values were essentially rooted in the natural rights tradition,” Blight said. “This idea that the rights of humanity come if not from God, then nature, and that somehow, in the end, those rights for all people will get secured.”

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