David Blight

The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding last Friday with a panel discussion on the life of Frederick Douglass, whose 200th birthday was also last week.

The panel — moderated by Jacqueline Goldsby, who chairs the African American Studies Department — featured professors from around the world, including Leigh Fought, M. Nzadi Keita, Sarah Meer, Hannah Rose Murray and Gilder Lehrman Center Director David Blight, a Yale history professor whose biography of Douglass will come out in late 2018. The discussion focused on Douglass’ private life — the women in his life, his overseas connections and his personal friendships. Through examinations of his two marriages, his extended family and his speaking engagements in Great Britain, the panelists sought to paint a more complete and nuanced picture of Douglass.

At the beginning of the discussion, Blight explained that while the Gilder Lehrman Center “is not a center for Douglass studies,” his role in resisting slavery and fighting for abolition makes him a key figure for the center. And in her opening statement, Goldsby alluded to the reliefs of Shakespeare, Plato and other famous writers that decorate the walls of Room 102 of Linsly Chittenden Hall, where the talk was held.

“Douglass deserves a place on these walls,” Goldsby said.

Leigh Fought, a history professor at Le Moyne College, who recently released a book titled “Women in the World of Frederick Douglass,” spoke next, emphasizing that, to understand Douglass, one has to understand the women in his life.

“To know him you have to know about his relationships,” she explained. “To know about his relationships, you need to know about the women. And you need a multidimensional view of the women.”

Audience member Carolyn Sacco ’21 was surprised to find that Julia Griffiths, a friend and alleged mistress of Douglass, not only offered Douglass valuable connections but also financially supported his newspaper. Sacco said she came to the event because it was relevant to an English class she is taking but left with an appreciation for the man behind the writings.

When it was founded in 1998, the Gilder Lehrman Center was the first center at a major university devoted to the study of slavery and abolition, Blight said. But, he added, there are now four or five similar centers worldwide, which speaks to the growing scholarship in the field.

George Joseph, the deputy director of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, which supports the Gilder Lehrman Center, said MacMillan is proud to support the research, teaching and public education the institute provides.

Skakel McCooey | skakel.mccooey@yale.edu