Frederick Douglass exhibit opens at Waukegan library; ‘He was a great American, who was brave and selfless’

Viewers of an exhibit on Frederick Douglass in Waukegan will learn the onetime slave not only met three times with President Abraham Lincoln in his quest to end slavery, but a few years before that worked with Susan B. Anthony to help women get the right to vote.

A quarter-century after advocating for the end to slavery with Lincoln, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Douglass to be the United States’ counsel general in Haiti. Already on display, the exhibit will be part of the celebration of Black History Month in northeast Lake County.

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The Frederick Douglass Advocate for Equality exhibit opened Monday and remains on display through Feb. 9 at the Waukegan Public Library, giving people a glimpse into the life of a man who fought for equality and equity on all fronts.

Along with the Frederick Douglass exhibit is a selection of books about the man.

“He was a great American, who was brave and selfless,” library Executive Director Tiffany Verzani said. “He did what he could for all people, advocating for civil rights and human rights. He was an inspiration with a positive impact through today.”

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On loan from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, the exhibit consists of six panels with pictures of Douglass and information about him from his birth in 1818 as a slave in Maryland through a life full of significant accomplishments.

Near the exhibit is a display of books from the Waukegan Public Library’s collection about Douglass. There will be other Black History Month activities at the library as well as activities offered by the Waukegan Park District through February.

Though she could not arrange to display the exhibit through all of Black History Month, Jennyfer Cordova, the library’s communications and community engagement manager, said opening on the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was significant.

“This is a traveling exhibit. I learned it was coming to Illinois,” Cordova said. “I felt there was a lot people who could learn from it. I wanted it to be here for all of Black History Month, but it was already scheduled for other places in Illinois.”

Both Cordova and Verzani said the exhibit taught them about Douglass. He wrote three autobiographies, and made speeches aimed at ending slavery. When the Jim Crow era arrived, he railed against it. He was advocating for women’s rights before slavery was abolished.

“I was amazed he met Abraham Lincoln three times,” Cordova said. “He attended a conference on women’s rights (in 1848). He felt people should have the right to vote so their voices could be heard.”

Impressed by Douglass’ courage, Verzani said his life continues to be an example of what people can accomplish as they advocate for their beliefs. He made an effort to recruit Black people in the north to enlist in the military to help fight the Civil War.

“He showed a lot of bravery in his essays on abolition,” Verzani said. “He learned that you have to be involved.”

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Three years before he died in 1895, Douglass was the commencement speaker at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where 5,000 people gathered to hear his speech. There were 15 graduates in the class.

Throughout Black History month, the library will be handing out themed book bags containing activities. A presentation of African Americans and the arts takes place Feb. 21, and Connie Martin talks about spiritual music and the Underground Railroad at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 26.

Along with the library’s Black History Month programs, the Waukegan Park District hosts an African American history exhibit throughout February at Haines House Museum in Bowen Park. It features local stories, like the stops on the Underground Railroad, the segregated Frog Island community and desegregation of Whittier Elementary School.

The Park District will host a soul food cooking demonstration by Sylvia England on Feb. 3. She is the founder of the African American Museum at England Manor and will demonstrate how to prepare the meals.

Another Park District event is the Black History Celebration with music, dancing and dramatic readings from African American artists from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 at the Jack Benny Center for the Arts in Bowen Park.

Jan 18, 2024 at 2:47 pm

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