Courtesy of the Beinecke Library

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library recently acquired the Walter O. Evans Collection of Frederick Douglass and Douglass Family Papers, which document the life of orator, author, abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. By the end of February, the Beinecke will have fully digitized this collection for public access.

The collection contains photographs, personal papers, ephemera, printed material and correspondence from Douglass and his family. These materials offer an intimate picture of Douglass’ personal life and work. In the past, these documents have served as valuable resources for many scholars including Yale history professor David Blight, whose biography on Douglass won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019.

“One of the true, true strengths of having all these collection materials in one place is being able to come at Douglass’s life and work from so many directions,” said Beinecke accessioning archivist Rosemary Davis. “To see not only through [his] eyes … but also through the eyes of his children, through the eyes of his family — to see the ways that they have tried to preserve his legacy through their own documentarian efforts.”

Before coming to Yale, the Frederick Douglass and Douglass Family Papers were part of private collector Walter O. Evans’ large collection of papers, artworks, books and artifacts relating to the African American experience. Evans personally oversaw the collection’s transportation to Yale — a symbolic gesture of the collection’s importance, according to Davis.

Once the collection was transported to the Beinecke, Davis — an accessioning archivist who oversees the transportation and maintenance of the library’s fragile materials — secured safe storage for the Douglass papers so their cataloguing and digitization could begin. While documents are usually digitized only after they have been catalogued, the two processes were combined in this case because of the collection’s importance, according to Rebecca Hirsch, the head of the Digital Services Unit at the Beinecke.

Both Davis and Hirsch said that upending the usual order of operations was difficult. The cataloguing and digitization teams took turns working with different parts of the collection. Davis added that she hopes the library’s staff keeps this model in mind for future acquisitions.

“Communication was really key,” Hirsch said, “but I think in the end it really paid off.”

Materials within the collection fall into three groups: the Frederick Douglass Papers, the Douglass Family Papers and scrapbooks mainly compiled by Douglass’ sons.

The Douglass Papers contain correspondence between Douglass and his family members, advertisements featuring Douglass, typed versions of his writings and invitations to events. They also include a handwritten version of Douglass’ eulogy for his fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

The Douglass Family Papers contain family photographs, Douglass’ published writings and correspondence between family members. The correspondence includes letters between Douglass’ son and his son’s wife that offer a “wonderful insight into their relationship,” according to Davis, who added that the scrapbooks section is a “treasure trove” of clippings, ephemera and annotations.

Archival materials relating to Douglass can also be found in other Beinecke collections, including the Randolph Linsly Simpson African American Collection, the Small Collections in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection and within the correspondence of abolitionist William Thomas. Davis noted that the new Douglass collection gives valuable insight into these existing collections, conveying the “ripple effect” of Douglass’ influences.

Davis, Hirsch and Melissa Barton, curator of prose and drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature, said items in the collection speak to the celebrity status that Douglass enjoyed during his life.

For example, the collection includes a letter inviting Douglass to deliver a speech in Stamford, Connecticut. The letter is signed by 72 individuals — with their signatures running onto the flip side of the page — all hoping to learn from Douglass.

Additionally, Barton said newspaper clippings from the collection remind viewers that Douglass was the most photographed man of the 19th century. She drew attention to a photograph depicting a crowd standing before a newly unveiled Douglass memorial statue.

Yet Douglass’ personal life and relationships are as central to the collection as his public acclaim, the curators said. In one letter, Douglass’ grandson writes to thank his grandfather for a flute. Douglass’ response reads: “Mrs. Douglass and I both agreed that your letter was a nice one … Go on my dear boy. You are a boy now, but you will be a man some day—and I hope a wise and good man.”

For Davis, the Frederick Douglass and Douglass Family Papers allow the public to personally relate to Douglass.

“Seeing these photos and seeing the photos of his family — and especially just the ones of his family together and the children together — I think is just such a wonderful moment to see them just existing in life together,” Davis said. “Being at somebody’s house, or Haley on the boat, just seeing something beyond the sheen of the history book … I think that’s something that’s always so amazing.”

Once the collection is available on the Yale University Library Digital Collections website, the quickest way to access its materials will be via call number JWJ MSS 240.

Annie Radillo  | annie.radillo@yale.edu