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Interactive map of Frederick Douglass’ influence across America will be available to public

Feb 20, 2024

John Kaufman-McKivigan, director of the Frederick Douglass Papers and the Mary O'Brien Gibson Professor of History at IUPUI, and Camr... John Kaufman-McKivigan, director of the Frederick Douglass Papers and the Mary O'Brien Gibson Professor of History at IUPUI, and Camryn Bembry, a junior in his H300 History Lab class, review a microfilm containing a newspaper article about Frederick Douglass from 1858. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Faculty and students at the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI are creating an interactive map documenting the travels and public speeches of African American activist Frederick Douglass. The map will display dates and locations where Douglass visited while offering insights into the topics he spoke about at each stop.

Once completed, the digital map will be accessible online as a learning tool for researchers, K-12 teachers and, perhaps, tourists as part of a cultural trail. The map will offer the public opportunities to learn more about Douglass, who escaped slavery and went on to become one of the most prolific writers and orators of the 19th century, advocating for the abolishment of slavery and promoting civil rights for African Americans and women, among other issues.

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. Photo courtesy of Getty Images&... Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The mapping research project is an offshoot of the Frederick Douglass Papers research unit of the Institute for American Thought at IUPUI, which is dedicated to collecting, transcribing, editing and publishing all of Douglass’ speeches, correspondence and writings.

John Kaufman-McKivigan, director of the Frederick Douglass Papers and the Mary O’Brien Gibson Professor of History at IUPUI, leads the mapping project along with Owen Dwyer, professor and chair of the Department of Geography at IUPUI, and Jeffery Duvall, research associate and assistant editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers.

For nearly a decade, their team has mentored students as they learn how to conduct research and add comprehensive information, including geographic coordinates, to the state-of-the-art interactive map. The team estimates the project, which was supported by the Institute for Engaged Learning through paid, mentored research experiences for students, will be ready for public use in about one year.

“One of our goals for our project down the road is to take all of our materials and create a one-stop center for studying Frederick Douglass,” Kaufman-McKivigan said. “Douglass had a 53-year public career, and we’ve studied 49 of them, so we’re getting close.

“The map is a great way to find where the Black community was actually located. Douglass traveled to obscure communities and not by accident. He knew where his audience would be, and he became a way to connect the scattered free Black population of the North.”

The researchers discovered 38 instances where Douglass traveled to Indiana to speak. In 1843, during one of his earliest visits to the state, Douglass spoke in Pendleton at the invitation of a group of abolitionist Quakers. Douglass recounted that he was attacked by a mob from Noblesville who went to Pendleton to confront him.

“He was badly injured, and for several decades after that, he kind of steered around Indiana and didn’t stop here as frequently as in many other states,” Kaufman-McKivigan said.

“He went so many places, and he’s doing this as a free Black man at a time when there are slave catchers roaming about the North,” Dwyer said. “He’s doing this at a time when what will come to be known as ‘Jim Crow’ is taking shape, as mobility begins to change. Through the stories he relates about how he was treated as he travels, we get what we might say is a very fine-grained description of the beginnings of a world that we’ve inherited.”

Junior Camryn Bembry is researching Frederick Douglass, finding information about his travels, speeches and writings to include on an int... Junior Camryn Bembry is researching Frederick Douglass, finding information about his travels, speeches and writings to include on an interactive map that educators and enthusiasts will be able to access once completed. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

The mapping research is meticulous. Students in Kaufman-McKivigan’s H300 “The History Lab” course are receiving hands-on experience as historical detectives, performing research and analysis by studying Douglass’ letters, speeches, editorials and autobiographies as primary resources. Students learn to investigate microfilm, online sources and newspapers from various communities as well.

Camryn Bembry, a junior studying history and museum studies, is one of the History Lab students. She said she is gaining valuable research experience that she plans to employ during the next phase in her education: law school.

Bembry said she was especially interested to learn of Douglass’ close ties to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, a historic church established by African American Methodists in 1836, which she previously studied as part of an internship.

“Douglass did a lot of benefits for Bethel AME Church,” Bembry said. “I knew that they had a lot of prominent figures as a part of their church, like Madam C. J. Walker, but I didn’t know how close Frederick Douglass was with the AME community. He liked going to churches that invited him because he felt like the church was the place where change could be started.”

She said it’s a slow process finding information by digging through old newspapers and microfilms, and she plans to contact churches next semester to scour through records. She said she wishes there was more information about conversations Douglass would have had with fellow freed slaves.

John Kaufman-McKivigan leads a reading and discussion on Frederick Douglass' writings at All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in I... John Kaufman-McKivigan leads a reading and discussion on Frederick Douglass' writings at All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in Indianapolis. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

“He was invited to Quaker churches or churches with people from other backgrounds to talk to them,” Bembry said. “I really wish I could be a fly on the wall and listen to what he was discussing with people that looked like him because sometimes his letters to other people were different from the letters that he wrote to other Black people, such as Harriet Tubman, just because he knew that they had shared experiences.”

Another facet of their research, “Hoosiers Reading Frederick Douglass Together,” is a program where students can engage with the community and share their findings. A staff member from the Frederick Douglass Papers and IUPUI students visit libraries, schools, community centers and churches to lead readings from Douglass’ speeches, followed by audience discussion of their relevance to issues facing the nation.

“The issues that Douglass believed in still have modern-day relevance — things like civil rights, voting rights, personal safety,” Kaufman-McKivigan said. “Douglass wanted justice in the law and law enforcement, and he was a proponent of women’s rights. He was a big advocate of education and self-reliance. Arguments that Douglass stood for, maybe unfortunately, are still issues that need to be addressed today.”

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