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The Frederick Douglass Centre

Helix building named in honour of social reformer and abolitionist

Published on: 20 December 2018

A £35m Newcastle University building has been named after world-renowned activist-author Frederick Douglass.

Taking shape on Newcastle Helix, the new Learning and Teaching Centre will be called The Frederick Douglass Centre in honour of the 19th century social reformer and abolitionist who was associated with the Summerhill area of the city next to the Helix site.

An anti-slavery campaigner – and at that time, an escaped slave himself – Frederick Douglass was in Newcastle in 1846 as part of a lecture tour of Great Britain and Ireland during which he spoke to packed halls and churches about slavery in his native U.S.

While in Newcastle, Douglass stayed with Anna Richardson and her sister-in-law, Ellen, who lived on Summerhill Grove. The two Quaker women actively campaigned for a number of social causes, and raised £150 to buy his freedom.

Due to open at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, The Frederick Douglass Centre will seat 750 people in the auditorium and 200 more in a collaborative lecture theatre on the ground floor, plus a range of seminar rooms on upper floors.

An artist's impression of The Frederick Douglass Centre - Oystershell Lane. Image: Sheppard Robson

Local and global real-life struggles for freedom

Professor Suzanne Cholerton, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Newcastle University, said: ”We are proud that the learning and teaching centre will be named in honour of Frederick Douglass. It is a fitting tribute to his role and that of the local community of supporters in the region’s local and global real-life struggles for freedom.

“The Frederick Douglass Centre as a purpose-built educational space is a major boost to our commitment to deliver the best possible experience and excellent facilities for learning and teaching for our students and staff.”

The story of Frederick Douglass’s Tyneside visit was featured in Freedom City Comics, a collaboration between comics artist-writers and academic researchers about the history of civil rights on Tyneside. The comic was produced as part of Freedom City 2017, the city-wide programme of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr being awarded an honorary degree by Newcastle University - the only UK university to do so in his lifetime.

The name of the development isn’t its only connection to the site’s past. Located on Oystershell Lane, the building design is inspired by the distinctive, nineteenth century house that used to be on the site and from which the road took its name. Oystershell House, as it was called, was built in the 1800s and every bit of the building - with the exception of the roof - was encrusted in oyster shells.

Led by contractor Sir Robert McAlpine and design team Sheppard Robson, the Frederick Douglass Centre features a dynamic sweeping glazed curve, an important reference to its location on Oystershell Lane.


The Catalyst Building 

Construction work on the new headquarters of the National Innovation Centres at Newcastle University, located on Newcastle Helix is nearing completion. The £50m building, to be called The Catalyst,  brings together business, academics and the public together. 

The centre will be home to:

  • National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA)
    • works with research specialists, businesses and the public to facilitate the commercialisation of key products, services and technologies to help people live better, longer lives.
  • National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD)
    • work on opportunities offered by the explosion in digital data.
  • National Institute for Health Research Innovation Observatory (NIHRIO)
    • apply Big Data analytical tools to reveal global trends in health innovation


An artist's impression of The Catalyst Building on Newcastle Helix
Comic: Patrice Aggs; Research: Brycchan Carey

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