From the Archives: Robert Hayden’s Tribute to Frederick Douglass

Fifty years after Douglass’s death, Hayden commemorated his legacy as a powerful advocate for freedom and equality.

Library of Congress

By the time he took to the pages of The Atlantic to make the case for black suffrage in 1866, Frederick Douglass had long since established himself as one of America’s most significant writers and political advocates. He escaped a life of bondage in Maryland at the age of 20 and fled north, becoming a powerful voice in the abolitionist movement and, after the Civil War set in, a sometime adviser to Abraham Lincoln. He remained a vocal proponent of racial and gender equality through the rise and fall of Reconstruction and during the onset of Jim Crow, before dying in 1895.

Robert Hayden paid tribute to Douglass in a poem published in The Atlantic half a century after Douglass’s death, writing that his legacy would carry him into a time when the freedom he fought for—never realized in his lifetime—was finally won. In that dreamed-of future, Hayden imagined, Douglass “shall be remembered … not with statues’ rhetoric, / not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, / but with the lives … / fleshing his dream of the needful, beautiful thing.”

Hayden had his own bright future to look forward to, and his own legacy to sow: In 1976, he was appointed the country’s first African American poet laureate. — Annika Neklason