A Portrait of Frederick Douglass

2018 marks the bicentennial of abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, whose Cedar Hill Estate is located one mile from our museum’s current location. In his honor, collections researcher Meghan Mullins showcases a portrait that was created by one of our museum’s early employees, artist Larry Erskine Thomas.

One of the most famous intellectuals of his time, Frederick Douglass inspired generations with his writings on slavery, political philosophy, and women’s rights. Larry Erskine Thomas portrays him in his later years, with a shock of white hair and a determined look on his face. The circular shape of the background is reminiscent of historic portraits of powerful men, while the jagged edges recall African motifs.

Silkscreen print of Frederick Douglass by Larry Erskine Thomas, 1969

Thomas created the portrait for the Smithsonian’s first African American-themed traveling exhibition, titled ‘The Frederick Douglass Years’ (1970). As Research and Design Coordinator at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, he was instrumental in developing and producing this exhibit, which traveled to venues around the country. Thomas was also involved in the museum’s pioneering efforts to effect social change locally. From 1974 to 1977, he led the Exhibits Laboratory, a first of its kind program to train African Americans, women and other minorities as museum preparators. The program aimed to increase access and opportunity to museum-related professions for underrepresented groups.

Like Frederick Douglass before him, Larry Erskine Thomas worked to educate and inspire positive social change. We cherish this portrait in our collection, which connects two Anacostia influencers across centuries