Frederick Douglass and the Importance of History

In this lesson, students will reflect on the value of knowing American history, practice their research and writing skills, and learn more about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.   

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • read or watch the president’s remarks about Frederick Douglass
  • conduct research about Douglass
  • write an essay or letter about what they have learned about Douglass

Frederick Douglass in the News

Tell students that this lesson will take as its starting point a statement made by President Trump on February 1, 2017—the start of African American History Month. Either have students watch the remarks (you can find them here) or read them the remarks:

"I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King [Martin Luther King, Jr.], so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and millions more Black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact."

Give students 1 or 2 minutes to write down their initial reactions to the president’s statement. Then ask, "What did you notice about the president’s remarks?" Accept students’ answers. If they need prompting, ask additional questions, such as:

  • Which African Americans does the president identify in his comments?
  • What does the president think of Frederick Douglass?
  • Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Reactions to the President’s Statement

Share with students that after the president’s statement, the Washington Post wrote:

"Critics seized on Trump’s comments at a Black History Month event, mercilessly attacking him for statements that spoke of Douglass in the present tense.  The Atlantic asked, simply: ‘Does Donald Trump actually know who Frederick Douglass was?’ and said that Trump’s remarks were ‘transparently empty.’"

White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to clarify Trump’s comments later in the day:

"I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he [Douglass] has made and I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he's going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more."

Then Douglass’s descendants weighed in. Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Douglass’s great-great-great grandson, said: 

"My first instinct was to go on the attack. I think it was obvious to anyone that heard [Trump’s] comments or read his comments that he was not up to speed on who Frederick Douglass was. We just thought that was an opportunity to do a history lesson ..."

Ask students:

  • What do you think of the criticisms of Trump’s statement described by the Washington Post? Was it fair?
  • What do you think of the press secretary’s clarification? 
  • What do you think about how Douglass’s great-great-great grandson responded to Trump’s comments?


Small Group Research & Writing

Now ask students, "What do you know about Frederick Douglass?" Write their comments on chart paper or the board.

Tell students that we’ll follow Kenneth Morris’s suggestion and use this opportunity to learn more about the famous abolitionist.  

Divide the class into groups of three. Tell each group to find three sources they can use to learn more about Douglass. Only one of the three can be a textbook. If the other sources are websites, guide them to evaluate the validity of the sites. Suggest that they:

  • use sites that are associated with colleges, universities, or museums (end in .edu)
  • use sites that come from the federal government (end in .gov)
  • use sites that are associated with nonprofit organizations (end in .org)
  • avoid Wikipedia and other crowd-sourced sites
  • avoid sites that appear to be blogs representing one individual’s ideas

Have students take notes about Douglass from the sources they used. Have each team decide if they have enough information to write a letter that tells the story of Douglass’s life. If not, have them look at another one or two sources.

Ask each group to write either a short essay about Douglass or a letter to the president in which they share information about Douglass and why it is important that we know about him.

You can offer your students this template to help them write their essays or letters.


Some Sources About Frederick Douglass (primary source)