“Yours Truly, Frederick Douglass”

Frederick Douglass and His Correspondence

Unit Plan, Douglass Day 2024

By Denise Burgher, Janel Moore-Almond, and Jormillin Valdes Pareras
Center for Black Digital Research Curriculum Committee
Edited by Lauren Cooper and Dr. Summer Hamilton
Center for Black Digital Research

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Overview for Teachers

Douglass Day is a joyful celebration of Black history that highlights the importance of preserving the legacy of influential Black leaders that has been celebrated since 1895. To celebrate Douglass Day 2024 we are transcribing Frederick Douglass’s correspondence, and we invite you and your students to participate in this necessary work.

Here you will find lesson plans for the elementary to college level to engage your students with the life and representation of Frederick Douglass. Students, who are often immersed in the politics of representation through their online interactions, are tasked with questioning how we learn about each other through the stories we tell about each other as well as how stories are told about us. Students are also given the opportunity to analyze and create visual representations of themselves or others through an analysis of Cartes de Visite.

Through these 45-60 minute lesson units, your students will be able to employ their historical thinking skills and ask critical questions, including: Is reading Frederick Douglass’s correspondence an accurate or even helpful way to learn about Frederick Douglass? What are the limitations of this method? How is this different from other ways we learn about historical figures or contemporary people? How can we create representations that authentically represent ourselves and our messages?

Themes: Identity/identity formation, Feminism, Gender, Representation, Self-presentation, Self-image, Photography, Black Visual culture, Freedom, Control of Image, Legacy

Background: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (1818-1895) was born in Talbot County, Maryland. He was enslaved from birth. When he was about 12 years old, he started to learn the alphabet and soon managed to become literate. In 1838, he emancipated himself and relocated to Massachusetts. There he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. His earliest public appearances took place at anti-slavery meetings, and he soon became a national leader in the Colored Conventions movement and attended women’s rights conventions. 

Fearful of arrest, Douglass fled to Europe in 1845 where he spoke eloquently against slavery in in Great Britain and Ireland. He returned to the United States in 1847 where he continued his advocacy for Black freedom and civil rights. In 1870, he moved from his home in Rochester, NY to Washington, DC where he would live until his passing in 1895. 

During his lifetime, Douglass wrote and edited a great deal. He wrote three autobiographies, hundreds of newspaper articles, and countless speeches. He edited three newspapers along with one magazine. Douglass’s writings are an extraordinary legacy from a lifetime fighting against slavery and racism in the pursuit of Black freedom and civil rights.

1818 – Born on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County, Maryland

1838 – Emancipated himself; married Anna Murray (1813-1882); changed name to Frederick Douglass

1841 – Addressed Anti-Slavery Society convention, Massachusetts

1843 – Attended his first Colored Convention in Buffalo, NY

1845 – Published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

1847 – Began publishing The North Star newspaper

1848 – Attended first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York

1851 – The North Star changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper (1860)

1855 – Published My Bondage and My Freedom

1881 – Published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

1883 – Attended national Colored Convention in Louisville, KY to deliver speech, “Why Hold a Colored Convention?”

1884 – Married suffragist Helen Pitts (1838–1903)

1889-1891 – Served as minister and consul general to Republic of Haiti, and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic

1895 – Died in Washington, D.C. at age 77


Primary Source: original documents/objects that were created by the person(s).

Orator: skilled/eloquent public speaker.

Activist: person who works to bring about social and or political change.

Advocate: person who publicly supports a cause or issue.

Abolitionist: person who works for the end of an institution, system or practice such as slavery.

Transcribe: write/type/transfer data into a written form.

Library of Congress (LOC): the largest library in the world, with millions of books, films and video, audio recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and houses the U.S. Copyright Office.

Correspondence: communication through exchanging letters, emails and other messages.

Personal letters: informal communication exchanged with people who are related or connected non-professionally; letters usually contain emotions and private thoughts.

Carte de Visite: type of communication popular in the nineteenth century containing the subject’s image and contact information.

Cursive: any style of penmanship or writing where the letters/characters are joined in a smooth, flowing way.


Elementary School:
Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).
Middle School: 
Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.
High School:
Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem).

Essential Questions

  • Can we learn who people are through the words/eyes of others? If so, how and why is that important?
  • How do we tell our own stories? How can words and images create a representation of ourselves? Why is it important to control our narratives?

Materials and Resources

Day 1

  1. Engage students using a KWL (Know, Want to know, Learned) about Frederick Douglass. 
  2. Introduce Douglass Day and background of Frederick Douglass using the attached background information (see above) as a starting point.

Day 2

  1. Teacher will ask the essential questions to introduce the concept of a Carte de Visite. 
  2. As a class, watch the PBS video: Becoming Frederick Douglass.
  3. After the video, engage students with images linked below. As a way to develop meaningful discussion, you might use the following possible discussion questions: 
    1. What do you notice?
    2. What do you wonder?
  4. Students should engage with the images and have at least 2-3 noticings and wonderings, leverage this discussion to make clear background information necessary to answer Essential Question for the class/unit)
    1. Carte-de-visite of Frederick Douglass (1862-1870)
    2. Frederick Douglass (1864-5)
    3. Carte-de-visite portrait of Frederick Douglass, 1878

Day 3-4

  1. Make sure students select one of the following figures from the choice board:
    1. Anna Julia Cooper (2020)
    2. Mary Church Terrell (2021)
    3. Mary Ann Shadd Cary (2023) 
    4. Frederick Douglass (2024)
  2. Students will create a Carte de Visite of another figure using a template. DO NOT include any of your personal information in your assignment. Your Carte de Visite should have: a picture, a name, and relevant information.
    1. Attach/Paste an appropriate picture of the person you selected.
    2. Write the name of the person you selected under the image.
    3. Fill with information on your Carte de Visite!
    4. Get creative! Give the picture a caption: your caption should be one sentence long and should describe what is happening in the picture, or the location where you may find this person.
    5. Write a relevant quote expressed by this person.

Day 5

Students will share their completed assignments, including their caption rationale. Extend flexible means to present if the student struggles with public presentation of ideas (i.e. have them record a video or slideshow).

Day 1 

  1. Engage students using the video, Frederick Douglass, Social Media Influencer (video)
  2. Introduce Douglass Day and background of Frederick Douglass using the attached background information (see above) as a starting point. 

Day 2

  1. Teacher will ask the essential questions to introduce the concept of a Carte de Visite
  2. As a class, watch the PBS video: Becoming Frederick Douglass
  3. Analyze Douglass’ Carte de Visite using one of the following images:
  4. Discuss
    • What do you notice about the image? 
    • What messages are sent through Douglass’s choice of position and dress?
    • Why is the signature important? In the 1862-1870 image, the signature is not Douglass’s. Why might this person have used his image instead of their own?
    • Consider the issues Douglass advocated for. How might these images represent his beliefs about his work and the world? 
    • Who was Douglass’s audience? How might his audience have influenced his choices? 
    • How do we represent ourselves in the present? What choices do we make about how we appear in certain spaces, such as online? Why? 

Day 3

  1. Students will begin the class with a reading of “The Two Harriets” and summarize key ideas. 
  2. Students will then view the Sojourner Truth Carte de Visite
  3. Discuss:
    • What do you notice about the images of these women?
    • How do they compare and contrast to the image of Douglass? 
    • How might notions of race, gender, and womanhood have influenced the construction of these images?
    • How do gendered and racialized ideas influence how people represent themselves in the media and online in the present? 
    • People often buy and sell these images today. What is their significance today? Why might they be considered valuable?

Day 4

  1. Students will analyze the Douglass Day 2024 “Save the Date” card (which is inspired by the style of an old fashioned Carte de Visite) and explore the relevance of Douglass’s image, and the design choices of the artist who created the Save the Date. 
  2. Students should view Douglass Save the Date, Douglass Save the Date Background Image, and Douglass Three Stages of Life.
  3. Discuss:
    1. What details do you notice about these images? Is there anything unusual about the image?
    2. Where is the image located on the Save the Date? What meaning does that send to the reader?
    3. Is Douglass facing the camera in these images? What is the impact of the subject’s position in an image? 
    4. How is the Save the Date image constructed? Is there more than one side? What might that mean? 
    5. Is the image signed? What does it mean when someone attaches their signature to a document? Why are signatures important? Where is the signature?
    6. What might the colors symbolize? 
    7. What do you think the person who composed the image would like you to know about Douglass?
    8. Do you think the designer chose the most effective image considering the goals of Douglass Day and its audience? Why or why not? 

Days 5-6 

  1. Students will create a Save the Date for next year’s Douglass Day 2025 featuring Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
    1. Students should research the life and achievements of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. 
    2. Students should identify images that reflect her life and work.
    3. Next, using an online design tool, students should create a Save the Date card including their chosen image and Douglass Day 2025 details.
    4. Students should write a project summary that includes a brief biography of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and explanation of their design choices for the Save the Date graphic. Note: The discussion questions from Day 4 provide a model to guide their writing.

Day 7

  1. Students will present their Save the Date designs in small groups using a gallery walk model. As a class, discuss the essential questions and any new learning or reflections.
  2. Students should individually respond to the essential questions in writing. 

Also see the page on Douglass Day in the College Classroom

  • The high school unit plan can be adapted to the college/university classroom. The lesson plan elements including the summative assessment could be a creative and instructive assignment for tertiary students. 
  • College students might also be assigned to work on transcription using the documents provided in the extension activities (below). 
  • Students can be invited to reflect on this archival work in a written journal assignment, post on a discussion board or in another format. The existing resources can be used in addition to the Resources for Advanced/College Level Instruction.
    • Possible discussion prompts:
      • Compare the uses of the carte-de-visite to the uses of social media today. What are the strengths and challenges of employing visual media for advocacy or activism?
      • Photography was an emergent technology in the 19th century, but it was quickly employed to fulfill the aims and goals of institutions. What emerging technologies serve the same purpose today? Provide examples to support your claims.
      • Sojourner Truth’s carte-de-visite was imprinted with the phrase, “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” Contextualize her use of the terms of “shadow and substance,” and evaluate if the commercial use of her image was an effective strategy to advance abolition. 
      • How does Trodd (2016) explain why the elder statesman (Frederick Douglass) is more visible in Douglass’s afterlife than the young abolitionist?
      •  Trodd (2016) makes the argument that in portraying Frederick Douglass through different eras of his life, artists have focused on different aspects of his activism and personhood. What seems to be the intention underlying this new artistic focus? What seems to be at stake in making these artistic choices? 
      • According to Jones (2020) , what elements of photographic culture was Sojourner Truth able to capitalize for her activism? How does the author argue that she achieved this feat?
      • How does Jones (2020)’s argument re-frame and evolve the interpretative frameworks that have been critical to the study of Black visual representation to date? 
      • How does Jones (2020) propose that we approach Sojourner Truth’s carte-de-visite from a Black feminist perspective? What are the issues/themes at play in Truth’s choice of self-presentation?

DouglassDay.org is transcribing the Frederick Douglass Papers: General Correspondence, 1841 to 1912 housed in the archives of the Library of Congress. This project is co-presented with the Library of Congress (LOC) and the By The People crowdsourcing platform. 

This collection includes public letters, intimate family moments, and much more. These letters show us the many versions of Frederick Douglass across so many parts of his long and storied lifetime fighting for Black rights and citizenship.


  1. Review the Library of Congress’s comprehensive lesson plan and resource guide to support transcribing in your classroom.
    1. Learn how to support your students transcribing here “Getting started” presentation (PPT) and here “Quick Tips” instructions hand out (PDF).
    2. Note: These archival documents are written in cursive—a style of penmanship with which students may not be familiar and will therefore need to be prepared to read. The Library of Congress has provided resources for students. Please see below:
  2. Have each student register for an account here prior to beginning transcriptions. 
  3. Review the tutorial videos created to orient new users to By the People with students. The following videos are available on the Douglass Day YouTube channel:
  4. Allow students to participate in transcriptions for Douglass and beyond!