Top of page

Collection Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

Provenance, Publication History, and Scope and Contents

In 1976, the Library of Congress published Frederick Douglass: A Register and Index of His Papers In the Library of Congress to assist researchers of the collection. This introduction to the Index gives a brief history of the Papers and how they came to the Library of Congress. It was originally written by Beverly Brannan, then of the Manuscript Division, and has been updated by Michael Spangler of the Manuscript Division.


Frederick Douglass House,
("Cedar Hill")
Washington, District of Columbia.

The Library's collection of Frederick Douglass papers consists essentially of those papers which were in Douglass' library at the time of his death in 1895. They relate principally to his career during and after the Civil War. Of his earlier papers, the bulk was destroyed when his house in Rochester, N.Y., burned in 1872. The books and papers that Douglass accumulated after moving to Washington were preserved at his home, "Cedar Hill," Anacostia, D.C., by his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass. In 1900 she formed the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in order that the home and its contents might be maintained after her death. The association held the property from 1903 until 1916, when it joined forces with the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. With this support the home and library were continued as a monument to the black leader, with access to Douglass' papers available to visitors and scholars. In 1940, the Historical Records Survey of the U.S. Work Projects Administration (WPA) published a calendar of the Douglass writings included in the collection.

In 1945, as a safeguard against their accidental destruction or future dispersal, the Library of Congress filmed the Douglass papers then at the home. Since that time, some items have become separated from the collection. Collation of the 1945 microfilm with the Douglass papers as they now exist has been made and, where appropriate, photocopies have been placed in their proper location.

In 1962, the Congress of the United States declared "Cedar Hill" to be a national historical building, and ownership of the house and its contents was transferred to the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Preparatory to renovating the newly acquired home, the National Park Service removed the Douglass papers and stored them in a warehouse in Alexandria, Va. Some were sent to the Park Service's restoration office in Harper's Ferry, W. Va.

To insure their proper custodial care and to make them more readily available to scholars in a research facility, the National Park Service acceded to a request made by the Librarian of Congress and transferred the Douglass papers to the Library of Congress. The formal transfer occurred on January 17, 1972, one month before the 165th anniversary of Douglass' birth, with Douglass' surviving descendants, his biographer Benjamin Quarles, and a large assembly of guests present at a ceremony in the Library's Whittall Pavilion.

Significant additions were made in 1975 to the Douglass papers, consisting of correspondence, account books, memoranda, speeches and writings, scrapbooks, and printed matter, presented by Douglass' great-granddaughter, Mrs. Ann Weaver Teabeau, and by the National Park Service.

Scope and Content Note

The papers of Frederick Douglass span the years 1841 to 1964, with the bulk of the material concentrated in the period 1862-95. The collection consists of correspondence, speeches and articles by Douglass and his contemporaries, a draft of his autobiography, financial and legal papers, and miscellaneous items.

Information about Douglass' early years is sketchy and his birth date uncertain. In his Life and Times, he states, "I suppose myself to have been born in February 1817." That autobiography, the draft version of which is in the collection, contains some recollections of his formative years and serves as an invaluable source for the study of his life and work. The collection also contains a single diary kept by Douglass during his tour of Europe and Africa in 1886-87. Reflections on the varied scenery, with frequent reminiscences about two previous trips to the British Isles, reveal Douglass' contemplative nature and provide the only known documentation for certain periods of his life. Other autobiographical material in the collection consists of a holograph sketch prepared for the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. It is included in subseries C of the speech, article, and book file.

Although Douglass began his speaking career as an abolitionist, his papers contain only a few examples of his early oratory, and these are mainly copies of contemporary newspaper accounts of his speaking engagements. Douglass continued speaking out against slavery during the Civil War, calling for immediate freedom for slaves and recognition of their full rights to citizenship. After the war, Douglass recommended that political power be used to legislate improvements in education and economic and social conditions, not only for ex-slaves, but for women, Chinese immigrants, and other oppressed segments of the population. Most of his speeches between 1865 and 1895 are included in the collection, either as manuscripts or in printed form.

North Star, June 2, 1848.
Edited by Frederick Douglass
and Martin Delany.
Serial and Government
Publications Division
. (2-10)

During several periods of his life, Douglass tired to influence public opinion through the press as well as on the lecture circuit. First he founded the North Star, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper published in Rochester, N.Y., from December 3, 1847, to April 17, 1851. The collection contains autograph copies of many of his editorials as well as the paper's ledger books. Later publishing ventures were Frederick Douglass' Paper (1851-60) and Douglass' Monthly (1859-63), both emanating from Rochester, and the New National Era (1870-74), published in Washington, D.C. There are no copies of these in the collection. (1) Speeches and articles by Douglass' contemporaries form subseries F of the speech, article, and book file.

The general correspondence series, which is item-indexed, consists primarily of letters received by Douglass, but some drafts and retained copies of his outgoing correspondence are included as well. Douglass was acquainted with leaders in many areas of public life. Notable among reformers and activists, black and white, of both sexes, with whom he corresponded are Susan B. Anthony, George T. Downing, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T. Thomas Fortune, Henry Highland Garnet, William Lloyd Garrison, J. Sella Martin, Parker Pillsbury, Jeremiah E. Rankin, Robert Smalls, Gerrit Smith, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Henry O. Tanner, Theodore Tilton, Henry O. Wagoner, and Ida B. Wells.

George F. Crane
Distinguished Colored Men.
New York: A. Muller, 1883.

Hand-colored lithograph.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number:
LC-USZC4-1561 (5-10)

Increased involvement in politics accompanied Douglass' growing emphasis on political rights. He served in a variety of appointed positions after the Civil War, and his papers contain correspondence with many of the people connected with or interested in his work, such as Ebenezer D. Bassett, James G. Blaine, Henry William Blair, Blanche K. Bruce, William E. Chandler, James S. Clarkson, Grover Cleveland, William E. Curtis, John Marshall Harlan, Benjamin Harrison, George F. Hoar, and John Van Voorhis. One of the more controversial incidents in Douglass' political career concerned his dispute with the Department of State over maneuvers to acquire Môle Saint Nicholas, a Haitian coastal town, as the site for a U.S. naval base. This occasioned numerous speeches by Douglass justifying his position. These are included in the collection.

Materials relating to Douglass' duties as a commissioner in charge of the Haitian Pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 are located in the general correspondence, the speech, article, and book file, and the subject file.

Another side of Douglass' life is illustrated by his correspondence with family and personal friends. Many letters written to him by members of his family give an account of the particular hardships they all endured, while numerous letters from friends discussed the problems black people faced everywhere, both before and after emancipation. These friends include Ottilia Assing; Russell Lant and Mary Carpenter; Julia Griffiths Crofts, who helped edit the North Star and served as business manager for the paper for some years; Rosine Ame Draz; Martha W. Greene; and the Webb and Richardson families, who collected the money to buy Douglass from bondage.

A series of family papers contains a biographical sketch of Douglass' first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, by their daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, and a small group of the papers of Douglass' second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass. Helen Pitts had been active in the woman's rights movement before her marriage to Douglass in 1884 and resumed her speaking career for a short time after his death in 1895. During the period of her marriage she curtailed activities not directly related to her role as Douglass' wife. The family papers contain drafts of her speeches, research notes, articles, a diary kept when she accompanied her husband to Europe and Africa in 1886-87, diplomas, and certificates. Other material attributed to her is in subseries D of the speech, article, and book file, and her correspondence is in the general correspondence series.

An extensive subject file consists principally of printed matter - pamphlets, brochures, speeches, reports, broadsides, and newspaper clippings - but includes a few manuscript items as well, such as an appointment book (1867-69) and an autograph album (1845). Materials for this alphabetically organized file were undoubtedly accumulated by Douglass and may have been maintained for reference purposes by him. It was also added to after his death and includes considerable information on Douglass' death and obsequies.

Map of Talbot County Maryland

Financial and legal files contain materials ranging in date from 1843 to 1928. Included are items relating to Douglass' income from speaking engagements, private loans, and especially real estate investments, for during his later years Douglass accumulated considerable property. Numerous bills, receipts, checks, and other financial and business papers serve to document the routine of day-to-day life, particularly for the years spent in residence at "Cedar Hill," Anacostia.

Invitations to private and public functions, maps, memorabilia, and miscellaneous printed matter complete the collection as it was originally organized.

The addition series, consisting of papers received in 1975, includes correspondence and other material, chiefly in the period 1870's-1890's. There is a large amount of personal correspondence, including about 30 letters of Douglass to his daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague.

Other Douglass Material

In addition to the Douglass material described above, there is Douglass correspondence in many of the papers of his contemporaries. In the Library of Congress, the following collections contain such correspondence: Frank G. Carpenter, Zachariah Chandler, Salmon P. Chase, Grover Cleveland, Anna E. Dickinson, Hamilton Fish, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Louis T. Michener, Reid family (Whitelaw Reid's papers), John Sherman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lewis Tappan, Booker T. Washington, and Carter G. Woodson.


  • 1.The Library of Congress publication Newspapers in Microform: United States, 1948-1972 (Washington, 1973. 1056 p.) lists the repositories where microfilm of Douglass' newspapers is available.
    Back to Text