Frederick Douglass ‘felt human for first time’ on Irish visit, descendant says

Great-great granddaughter of anti-slavery activist launches Dublin trail celebrating links

Nettie Washington Douglass, great-great granddaughter of Frederick Douglass, visiting the Mansion House in Dublin.

Nettie Washington Douglass, great-great granddaughter of Frederick Douglass, visiting the Mansion House in Dublin.

 

Anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass was “for the first time in his life able to feel like a human being, not judged by his colour”, when he visited Ireland in the mid-19th century, his great-great granddaughter has said.

Nettie Washington Douglass was speaking as she launched the latest of a series of walking trails commemorating Douglass’ visit to Ireland in 1845.

Walks in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Wexford and Waterford have been created by historian Professor Christine Kinealy, commemorating locations associated with the campaign visit.

Douglass escaped slavery as a young man and later became a prominent abolitionist who travelled to Ireland to try to strengthen influence, particularly over Irish-Americans, in the bid to abolish slavery in the US.

Frederick Douglass: escaped slavery and became a prominent abolitionist, orator and writer. Photograph: MPI/Getty Images
Frederick Douglass: escaped slavery and became a prominent abolitionist, orator and writer. Photograph: MPI/Getty Images

His great-great granddaughter said she was “honoured” to be in Ireland to launch the walks and to spend time with the 2021 Frederick Douglass Global Fellows on their study-abroad programme in Dublin.

The programme is partly sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs to honour the 175th anniversary of the meeting between Douglass and the Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell in Dublin in 1845.

The fellows are high-achieving college students of colour from colleges and universities across the US. They have spent the last three weeks studying the lives and legacies of Douglass and O’Connell, while exploring parts of Ireland, and were able to meet with Taoiseach Micheál Martin as part of their trip.

“This is my fourth year being with the fellows, but it’s the first time a group has come to Ireland, which to me is extremely special because of Douglass’ connection to Ireland,” Ms Washington Douglass told The Irish Times.

“It is such an honour that the programme is named after Douglass. He never got to spend one day in a classroom setting - he was completely self-taught, and education was extremely important to him. That these young people are able to experience a month in Ireland that they will remember for the rest of their lives is wonderful,” she said.

“When Douglass came here as an escaped slave, his experience with Irish people was one where for the first time in his life he was able to feel like a human being, not judged by his colour. As a descendant of his, you really appreciate the country because of that.”

The Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland, who also launched the Dublin trail, recalled the invitation extended to Douglass by her predecessor in 1845 to dine at the Mansion House, a “kindness that he treasured for the rest of his life”.

The Dublin walking trail. A Cork trail has already been launched and further trails associated with locations that Douglass visited in Belfast, Wexford and Waterford are planned.
The Dublin walking trail. A Cork trail has already been launched and further trails associated with locations that Douglass visited in Belfast, Wexford and Waterford are planned.

The Cork Abolitionists Trail, created by Dr Laurence Fenton and the DouglassWeek team, was launched last month.*

It was “extra special” that this year’s Douglass fellows were able to “walk in his footsteps” in Ireland, Ms Washington-Douglass added.

Growing up, she “didn’t understand” and was “uncomfortable” with the attention she received because of her ancestors. She said her perspective changed when a woman who was a stranger to her thanked her for what her ancestors did to make her life better.

“She couldn’t thank them because they’re not here, so she was thanking me. I do the same with Ireland. I would love to be able to thank Irish ancestors for welcoming my grandfather to your country but I can’t because they’re not here. I feel if I’m thanking you, I’m thanking your ancestors.”

*This article was amended on August 9th, 2021*