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Re-examining Fredrick Douglass’s time in Lynn

The Douglass 200 Committee members from left to right: Julia Greene, Brenda Womack, Wendy Joseph, Drew Russo, and Tom Dalton. (Owen O'Rourke)

LYNN — Frederick Douglass is one of the best-known abolitionists in American history.

What’s less known is Douglass’s time in Lynn during the pivotal years of his career. A group of Lynn historians have joined together to shed light on the city’s best kept secret.

“This is an opportunity for Lynn, and I think it’s long overdue, to embrace not just our place in Douglass’s history but really the important role Douglass played in our own history as a city,” said Lynn Museum Executive Director Drew Russo.

Russo, local historian Julia Greene, Zion Baptist Church representative Brenda Womack, author Tom Dalton and Mass Humanities representative Wendy Joseph met each other while attending a variety of local events. The group formed the Douglass 200 Committee to highlight all that took place when Douglass and his family lived in Lynn.

“Douglass, who died in 1895, was ignored for decades. And the famous autobiography about his life as a slave was actually written in Lynn,” said Dalton. “The book ends with the words ‘I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass, Lynn, MA. April 28, 1845.”

Dalton, who began researching the famous abolitionist over two years ago, wrote a book titled “Frederick Douglass: The Lynn Years, 1841-1848” which was published in late January of 2018. The text focuses on Douglass, who came to Lynn as a 23-year-old fugitive slave with his wife Anna, their five children. In the ensuing years, the family lived on Harrison Court as well as Baldwin and Newhall Streets.

“Religion meant so much to Douglass, he was guided by it, which is where I come in,” said Womack. “This committee and its efforts is a way for us to get this information out and to make the awareness available for people to sit back and say wow.”

Greene, who is also a history professor at North Shore Community College, grew up in Lynn. After moving away for a few years, she found herself right back where she started, focusing on the history of the city that raised her.

“I was at the Lynn Museum and saw a picture of Douglass, I had vaguely known that he lived here for a while, and I asked someone about it while I was at the museum and they said he was never here,” she said. “That got me thinking that he must have done something during his years here, so I started doing research and ended up doing a lecture at the Lynn Museum in 2010 with the help of a Lynn Cultural Council grant.”

James Needham Buffum, who served as the 12th and 14th Mayor of Lynn, is the sole reason Douglass ended up in Lynn, according to Greene. The two men worked together very closely during the anti-slavery movement in Lynn.

“You think about all the fires in the 1870’s with one of them wiping Buffum out completely and forcing him to rebuild his business in the early 1880’s,” said Greene. “So a lot of this information about Douglass’s efforts throughout his stay in Lynn got lost in the fires.”

Joseph has read aloud the Frederick Douglass speech at High Rock Tower for the past eight years. She put together the Frederick Douglass’ 200th Birthday in Lynn year-long celebration brochure.

“One of the overreaching things that we as a committee are trying to create is a wayfinding because we don’t know the houses he lived in but through the Lynn Museum we got an app maker to show the places where Douglass’s homes used to be, or places where he gave speeches or lectures,” she said. “We need funding for creating these different wayfinding stations as this is all volunteering on our part.”

The committee has planned celebrations to celebrate Douglass’s bicentennial birthday, beginning with a kick-off event at Lynn City Hall Feb. 14.

“Lynn has always been this place that is more of a refuge compared to other communities going all the way back to the anti-slavery movement to today and we should celebrate that,” said Greene. “If we can connect that to Douglass and lift everybody up for a higher vision of the city, we should do it.”

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