National Portrait Gallery Presents “One Life: Frederick Douglass”

On View June 16–April 21, 2024
May 16, 2023
News Release
Social Media Share Tools
Portrait of Frederick DOuglass

Credit: Frederick Douglass by an unidentified artist. Oil on canvas, c. 1845. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will present “One Life: Frederick Douglass,” an exhibition exploring the life and legacy of one of the 19th century’s most influential writers, speakers and intellectuals. Douglass was a radical activist who devoted his life to abolitionism and rights for all. This exhibition shows the intimate relationship between art and protest through prints, photographs and ephemera. “One Life: Frederick Douglass” is guest curated by John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and consulting curator Ann Shumard, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior curator of photographs. To mark the beginning of the Juneteenth holiday weekend, the exhibition will open on June 16 in the museum’s One Life Gallery on the second floor and remain on view until April 21, 2024. A press preview of the exhibition with the curators will be held Thursday, June 15, 10–11:30 a.m.; RSVP to

“Frederick Douglass was the preeminent African American voice of the 19th century and among the nation’s greatest orators, writers and picture-makers,” Stauffer said. “Born into slavery, he became a leading abolitionist, civil rights activist and the most photographed American of the 19th-century, a public face of the nation. This comprehensive exhibition includes objects from all phases of his life as a way to highlight the power of his remarkable impact. It explores his friendship with President Abraham Lincoln, for example, as well as his enduring influence on artists and activists in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Douglass was born on the Eastern shore of Maryland in 1818. Having escaped slavery in 1838, he traveled to New York, where he married Anna Murray. After the couple moved to Massachusetts, he began attending abolitionist meetings. Douglass went on to publish three autobiographies and a novella, deliver thousands of speeches and edit the longest continually running Black newspaper of the 19th century, The North Star (later Frederick Douglass’ Paper and Douglass’ Monthly). As a political insider and policy influencer during the Civil War, he befriended and advised President Abraham Lincoln. Douglass changed traditional rules of representation by explaining how “true art” could be an engine of social change. 

The exhibition will showcase over 35 objects, including the ledger documenting Douglass’ birth in February 1818; a pamphlet of his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” oration; two of his three autobiographies—My Bondage and My Freedom and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself; a letter from Douglass to Lincoln; portraits of activists in Douglass’ circle, such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth; portraits by the prominent Black photographers Augustus Washington and Cornelius Marion Battey; and portraits of the Black leaders Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, all of whom carried on his legacy.  

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.      

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

# # #


Media Only

Concetta Duncan


Gabrielle Obusek