October 1, 2014
"We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future." -- Frederick Douglass, from a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Rochester, N.Y., July 5, 1852
This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, West Chester University's Frederick Douglass Institute (FDI) is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Tim Golden, WCU's FDI director and an associate professor of philosophy, is coordinating West Chester's interdisciplinary conference on Frederick Douglass on Wednesday, Oct. 15. Scholars from various disciplines will gather to discuss the legacy and influence of Douglass, the 19th-century orator, author, statesman and former slave. Free and open to the public as well as academics, it will run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Philips Autograph Library in Philips Memorial Building.
“The Frederick Douglass Institute considers this a unique opportunity to engage in extensive critical reflection and robust academic discussion about the life and legacy of Douglass, which is so integral to America's ongoing civil rights struggle,” says Golden. Douglass' convictions are still relevant today, he notes, citing the parallels between such issues as 19th-century slavery and human trafficking today.
Frederick Douglass is iconic and familiar to West Chester University. He gave his last public lecture on this campus on Feb. 1, 1895, just 19 days before he died. A marker erected in 2006 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on the Academic Quad near the Old Main Arch commemorates that event.
Today's WCU students pass a larger-than-life-size statue of a young Frederick Douglass in the academic quad just inside the Philips Memorial Building archway. Installed in October 2013, the bronze is surrounded by benches and a quiet area for reflection named DeBaptiste Plaza in honor of the first African American mayor of West Chester Borough and a staunch WCU supporter, Clifford E. DeBaptiste.
This year's conference brings together a diverse group of scholars from WCU and its fellow State System institutions as well as DePaul University, Saint Joseph's University, and the University of Nottingham (England). In addition to sessions on democracy and voting rights, two WCU professors, historian latonya thames-taylor and social work instructor Chad Lassiter, will lead a panel discussion on the recent events surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
When it was established in 1995, the mission of West Chester's Frederick Douglass Institute was to apply the vision of this civil rights leader to the curriculum. C. James Trotman, professor emeritus of English and FDI founding director from 1995 until his retirement in 2010, was instrumental in carrying that mission forward and establishing FDIs at all 14 of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities.
One initiative that celebrates Douglass' intellectual legacy is the Frederick Douglass summer scholars program. Members of underrepresented groups who are finishing their dissertations are eligible to come to WCU or another system school to acquire teaching experience at the college level. Some former FDI summer scholars will discuss the enduring impact of FDI on their careers as academics at one of the sessions during this year's conference.