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Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass

The University’s learning and teaching centre is named in honour of the 19th century social reformer, Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass Centre

On 13 November 2019, our new learning and teaching centre was officially opened by Kenneth B Morris Jr, a direct descendant of the world-renowned activist, author and abolitionist.

The Frederick Douglass Centre features a stunning 750-seat auditorium, a 200-seat lecture theatre and a range of seminar rooms and exhibition spaces over several floors. The atrium space includes an exhibition based on quotes from the life of Frederick Douglass.

The naming of this building is a further acknowledgement of the University’s long-standing commitment to social justice. The date of the opening ceremony itself, 13 November, was chosen because it coincided with the 52nd anniversary of the visit to the University by Dr Martin Luther King Jr to receive an honorary degree.

Kenneth B. Morris

Who was Frederick Douglass?

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery sometime around 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, USA. He became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time.

He advised Presidents and lectured to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and Irish Home Rule

On 3 September 1838, Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore.

He disguised himself as a sailor and headed north, travelling by train and boat, first to Philadelphia, then on to New York.

Frederick Douglass as a younger man.

I was born a slave, but I learned to read and I escaped.

Frederick Douglass

Autobiography leads to world fame

Douglass won world fame in 1845, when he published his autobiography. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, described his experiences as a slave.

Two years later, he began publishing an antislavery newspaper called The North Star.

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, regardless of race, religion or gender. He also actively supported women’s suffrage.

Frederick Douglass and Newcastle

By 1846, slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, but it was still legal in the USA.

Newcastle was the site for a wide range of reform activitiesAnti-slavery lectures and sermons were regularly held in the city.

Douglass came to Newcastle as part of a lecture tour of Great Britain and Ireland. He spoke to packed halls and churches about slavery in his native America.

In doing so, Douglass was following in the footsteps of perhaps the most famous former slave to visit Newcastle, Olaudah Equiano.

His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), was the first widely-read slave narrative. It represented the start of a tradition that Douglass’s own Narrative would continue.

Anna Richardson, who Frederick Douglass stayed with during his time in Newcastle.

While in Newcastle, Douglass stayed with Anna Richardson and her sister-in-law, Ellen. They lived on Summerhill Grove, near where The Frederick Douglass Centre stands today. The two Quaker women were active campaigners for a number of social causes.

Buying Frederick’s freedom

Towards the end of 1846, Ellen and Anna had raised the necessary funds – £150 or some $700 at the time. They instructed a lawyer in America to buy his freedom.

In due course, the Richardsons received confirmation from Douglass’s enslaver. He said his ‘slave Frederick Bailey, alias Douglass’ was now ‘entirely and legally free’.

On 27 April 1847, after returning to America, Douglass wrote to Anna Richardson:

I now have my manumission papers in my possession… I landed on your shores a slave, and came back a free man.

Newcastle University and Social Justice

At Newcastle University, we are committed to embedding our core values of social justice and equality, diversity and inclusion in all that we do.

The University has a long-standing tradition of honouring social justice campaigners. In 1967, we awarded an honorary degree to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. We were the only UK University to do so during his lifetime.

The naming of The Frederick Douglass Centre is a continuation of the legacy work that began in 2017, when we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s visit.

The naming is a way of acknowledging the wide range of social activists from the city’s past. It also signals our ambition to play our part in the city’s efforts towards reform and social justice in the 21st century.

Frederick Douglass Centre, Newcastle Helix

Core values

Our core values are social justice and equality, diversity and inclusion. They underpin everything we do as a University:

  • from our education and research
  • to how we work together with our partners in our city and region, nationally and around the world

Our decision is to commemorate Douglass and to incorporate his memory into the physical landscape of our University. This speaks not only to the past, but to how we envisage our future.

It is a way of signposting our acknowledgement of the wide range of social activists from the city’s past. It also symbolises our ambition and our responsibility to play our part in the city’s efforts toward reform and social justice in the 21st century.

Events programme

The opening of the Frederick Douglass Centre was celebrated with a weeklong programme of events themed around social and environmental justice. Highlights included:

  • an academic workshop on De-colonizing the Curriculum
  • a debate on slavery and lessons for contemporary society
  • a panel discussion on inclusive leadership, led by our BAME Network
  • an Insights Public Lecture by climate change expert, Professor Kevin Anderson
  • a poetry reading by Major Jackson
  • a cultural programme in collaboration with our partners at City of Dreams, GemArts and Northern Stage


With thanks to:

  • Susan-Mary Grant, Professor of American History
  • Peter Hopkins, Dean of Social Justice and Professor of Social and Political Geography, Newcastle University
  • Jack Kaufman-McKivigan and Jeffrey A Duvall, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Hugh Stolliday, Summerhill Trust