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Northumbria research helps celebrate life of African American leader

27th February 2018

A Newcastle family’s life-changing support for an African American slave was commemorated at a special event thanks to the research of Professor Brian Ward and former Northumbria University student Adam Sharp.

Frederick Douglass, the 19th Century’s most famous African American leader, abolitionist and social reformer, stayed with the Richardson family at their house in Summerhill Grove, Newcastle, in 1846. However, the significance of their support and campaigning for his freedom had never been formally recognised by the city. Professor Ward, working with Northumbria American Studies graduate Adam, from the Friends of Summerhill, and Simon Parkin, at Newcastle City Council, led the call for a commemorative plaque to be installed recognising the association of Douglass with Newcastle.

The plaque was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Cllr Linda Wright yesterday (Monday 26 February) and acknowledges Douglass’ relationship with the Richardson family, who were Quakers and anti-slavery activists. Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, Tim Gerhardt from the US Embassy and a relative of the Richardson family were also in attendance. The unveiling was followed by a special event organised by Professor Ward at the Discovery Museum, where academic staff from the Humanities Department at Northumbria, including Professors Brycchan Carey, David Gleeson and Dr. Clare Elliott, discussed Douglass’ transatlantic significance and the historical connections between anti-slavery activism on Tyneside and in the US.

Pupils from St. Paul’s School in Newcastle, working with Northumbria’s Arts Department led by Dr. Heather Robson, also participated in the event at the Discovery Museum to create an instant artistic response to the story of Douglass and the Richardsons and reflect on how it relates to contemporary Tyneside.

The commemoration came just months after Freedom City 2017, a city-wide programme of activities to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to Newcastle. This too was inspired by Professor Ward’s research and explored in his recent book on the subject, Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne: The African American Freedom Struggle and Race Relations in the North East of England.

Professor Ward said: “In 2017, there was a good deal of attention to Martin Luther King as it marked the 50th anniversary of his visit to Newcastle. But what I stressed in my book about that brief episode was that it forms part of a much bigger story of links between the North East and the struggle for racial justice in America – and for that matter in Britain.

“By publicly commemorating the enormous role that Henry, Anna and Ellen Richardson played in the life of the most important African American leader of the 19th Century, we can encourage greater understanding of the historic diversity of the region.”

After escaping from slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York and wrote a number of hugely significant and influential books, including his 1845 biography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

Leader of Newcastle City Council, Cllr Nick Forbes added: “We are incredibly proud to be honouring Frederick and the Richardson family with this plaque and celebrating his life, especially his time in Newcastle, staying in Summerhill Grove in 1846.

“The plaque marks not only the support and campaigning for his freedom, but also Newcastle’s long history in standing up for human rights, liberty and equality. These are values which unite our communities through the centuries and it is particularly poignant that children from St Paul’s Primary School helped mark this special occasion.”

Northumbria is one of the UK’s leading institutions for students who want to learn more about the history, literature, politics, film, art and popular culture of the United States. Whether your interests lie in the Civil War or the War on Terror, Walt Whitman or Walt Disney, American Studies at Northumbria will help you to develop your critical and imaginative skills in the context of the American experience and its global significance.

Northumbria research helps celebrate life of African American leader Frederick Douglass from Northumbria University on Vimeo.

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