Fred DouglasS gets his due

douglass at library

Mural by Shawn Dunwoody outside the Frederick Douglass Community Library on South Avenue 3/18/17

Rochester’s Frederick Douglass has been making the news lately. First, President Trump suggested that Douglass might still be alive. While more fake news than not, the suggestion became the subject for John Roche’s “Yes Donald!”

Now, as reported today by NPR, for 80 years a park in Nashville meant to honor Frederick Douglass was misspelled as Fred Douglas Park. The park has been officially renamed and the sign will soon be remade.

For nearly 80 years, this sign misspelled the name of famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

East Nashville, TN

As described in the article, for years the park’s name has been a source of confusion and controversy.  In 1934, the city of East Nashville decided to create a “Negro Park” named “Douglas Park.”  The proclamation was not clear if Douglas referred to Frederick Douglass — spelled with two S’s. Furthermore, someone wrote in Fred next to Douglas. Fred would seem to be the abbreviated form of Frederick.  At the same time, while Douglass would sometimes write his name as Fred in informal correspondence, he was almost always referred to — and referred to himself — as Frederick.

These are the minutes taken from a parks board meeting May 17, 1934. It's unclear when the writing in the margins was added.

The minutes taken from a parks board meeting May 17, 1934. It’s unclear when the writing in the margins was added.

Historians speculate whether the misspelling and condescending use of Fred was an intentional error to rile African-Americans at the time, an honest mistake that was somehow never corrected, or if there was actually a Fred Douglas for whom the park was meant to be named.

After a careful research of census and other records, no Fred Douglas was found. So the park will now be called — posthumously — Frederick Douglass Park.

To learn more, I went to the Frederick Douglass Community Library on Highland Avenue where I told the story to librarians and patrons.

First, the librarians said whoever wrote the minutes in Nashville in 1934 was hardly alone in the misspelling. They said people are constantly leaving off the second S in Douglass. As evidence, they offered an interlibrary loan envelope in which Douglass is Douglas.

doulas library

Provided by the Frederick Douglass Community Library, 3/18/17

One of the patrons took a charitable view of the use of Fred vs. Frederick. He thought maybe the committee wanted to set a casual tone for the park. I had told him the naming took place during the Depression. He joked that maybe they were trying to save money on a shorter sign as Fred has five fewer letters that Frederick.

Anyway, Nashville, thanks for getting it right.

Hear the full NPR story

In Nashville, Spelling Frederick Douglass’ Name Correctly Ends An 80-Year Mystery

Historians in Nashville have been on the hunt for a prominent man named Fred Douglas. But they are happy to report that no one by the name has been found. Because they had a pretty good hunch that a park bought in the 1930s was named after the famed abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. The name just wasn’t spelled correctly.


Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester from Frederick Douglass in Rochester: A Gallery of Images and Words

How the name ended up in an abbreviated style has been a mystery that lingered for decades and has only now been corrected after citizens forced the issue. While the clarification has not been controversial, there was a time that the mere idea of the park ruffled feathers. It was just the city’s second “Negro park,” and the first was named for a white family.


statue of Frederick Douglass in the Highland Bowl, 3/18/17

second mural

Mural by Shawn Dunwoody at the Frederick Douglass Community Library on South Avenue. 4/7/17

The white neighbors of what would become Douglas Park were so angry the city put the plans on ice for a few years, then quietly opened the park with no fanfare or explanation for the name. Some historians believe the name could have been left vague as a form of plausible deniability. For more than 80 years, there’s been confusion about whether the city meant to honor Frederick Douglass.


“Yes, Donald!” by John Roche

Frederick Douglass in Rochester: a gallery of images and words