Located at the northwest gate of Central Park in Manhattan, Frederick Douglass Circle features an appropriately larger-than-life sculpture of the abolitionist, author and orator. The bronze artwork is the crown to a decades-long effort to develop the plaza that honors Douglass (1818-1895) and recognizes his ties to New York City, once a dangerous haven for escaped Southern slaves.
Born into slavery on a Maryland plantation 200 years ago this February, Douglass was 20 when he finally broke his chains of bondage and fled north to freedom. He borrowed identity documents from a black freeman that helped him pose as a sailor and board a Delaware-bound train from a station in Baltimore, where he had labored as a shipbuilder. Douglass later took a boat and another train to reach New York City. About his first taste of freedom, he noted in his autobiographical writings:
My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man – one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway.
Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand, my thoughts could not be withdrawn from my strange situation. For the moment[,] the dreams of my youth, and the hopes of my manhood, were completely fulfilled. The bonds that had held me to “old master” were broken. No man now had a right to call me his slave or assert mastery over me. I was in the rough and tumble of an outdoor world, to take my chance with the rest of its busy number.
I have often been asked how I felt, when first I found myself on free soil; and my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the “quick round of blood,” I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.
But Douglass, homeless and hungry in a strange city, still had to evade bounty hunters of escaped slaves that could capture and return him to his master in Maryland, as demanded by the Fugitive Slave Act. Within days, Douglass became one of about 600 Southern slaves who, through the years, had taken refuge at the boarding house of David Ruggles in modern Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, where he owned a printing shop and library that published abolitionist literature. Douglass also changed his original surname, Bailey, to Johnson, to conceal his identity.
Ruggles successfully reunited Douglass with his fiancé Anna Murray, a free black woman from Maryland, and they got married in his home. Soon after, the couple left for safer ground in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass changed his name again, this time for good. He later traveled to Great Britain and Ireland, gave speeches denouncing slavery and received funds that helped him to purchase freedom papers on his return to the states.
A self-educated slave, Douglass became an orator for the American Anti-Slavery Society; wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, the first of three autobiographies; and founded the abolitionist newspaper The North Star two years later. He published the journal in Rochester, New York, more than 300 miles north of Manhattan.
During the Civil War, he was a consultant to Abraham Lincoln. After the conflict, he fought for the rights of former slaves, championed the women’s suffrage movement and served in various government posts. He died in Washington D.C. in 1895 and was buried in Rochester.
Although Frederick Douglass Circle was established in 1950, 60 years passed before it was fully developed with quilt-like paving, granite benches and a bronze fountain, a design by Harlem artist Algernon Miller. Later, in 2011, the eight-foot bronze sculpture of Douglass, by Hungarian-born Gabriel Koren, was dedicated at the roundabout that connects Central Park West and 110th Street to the northern stretch of Eighth Avenue, now named Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Among Douglass’ words inscribed at the memorial include: “The flight was a bold and perilous one; but here I am, in the great city of New York, safe and sound, without the loss of blood or bone.”