This is the earliest known portrait of Frederick Douglass (1818(?)-1895), the great American abolitionist, orator, and writer. We do not know the photographer, or where the portrait was taken, but judging from the style of the case the photograph comes in, it was probably taken around 1845, about the time of the publication of the autobiography that made him famous: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass was a strong proponent of photography as a medium that could present people as they truly were, deserving equal respect as human beings, so he often sat for his portrait, using these images as publicity. He wrote and delivered several public lectures on the importance of photography.

The autobiographical Narrative is the best place to go for the life of Douglass, and you can read a version of it online here, but the broad details are these: Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 in Maryland. He did not know his exact birth date or even birth year with certainty. His father may have been his own master. In his childhood, Douglass was lent out to a relation of his master, whose wife taught him the rudiments of reading, even though it was against the law to teach a slave to read. Douglass continued to teach himself by any means he could find, and learning to read fired his desire for freedom. When Douglass was 16, his master grew unhappy with him and hired him out in 1833 to a notorious slave-breaker, Thomas Covey, who beat Douglass regularly. Douglass finally fought back against Covey in an hours-long brawl, and Covey never tried to whip him again.

After that, Douglass made several attempts to escape slavery, finally succeeding in 1838. He made his way to New York City, where he married Anna Murray, a free Black woman he had met in Maryland whose status as a free woman had inspired his own aspirations. He and Anna moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass became progressively more and more involved in the abolitionist movement. He started speaking publicly in 1841 and published his autobiography in 1845. The book rapidly became a bestseller, both in the United States and abroad, and Douglass traveled to Ireland and England, where gave speeches to crowded venues, earning financial support for his further ventures.

Upon returning to the United States, Douglass started his career as a journalist and abolitionist newspaper publisher, founding The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, and other papers. His thinking expanded to include civil equality for all, not just slaves and free BLacks, but woman and all peoples, including Native Americans. He continued his speaking tours to advance the abolitionist cause. During the Civil War, Douglass lobbied tirelessly with President Lincoln for the right of Blacks to serve in the army.

After the war, Douglass continued in his work for civil rights through journalism, writing, politics, and speeches. He held several ambassadorial positions, including consul-general to the Republic of Haiti (1889-1891). When he died in 1895, thousands came to pay their respects.