Celebrating Frederick Douglass and Newark’s Abolitionist History
Rutgers-Newark graduate student designs monument to commemorate civil rights pioneer’s 1849 visit to city
“I’d like to reposition this period as Newark’s first black rebellion. African Americans rebelled or they were dissatisfied with their condition and sought to make a better condition for themselves. For the university, it’s exciting because there was this noted thinker who came to the space where the city’s black activism took root.”– Rutgers-Newark graduate student Noelle Lorraine Williams
Noelle Lorraine Williams is working to shine a spotlight on Newark’s little-known abolitionist past and recently discovered connection to Frederick Douglass as a way of challenging negative narratives that she says leave out the full story of the city’s history.
The Rutgers University-Newark graduate student is helping to shift the dialogue through her role in the commemoration of the revered civil rights pioneer’s visit to the city on April 17, 1849. Douglass came to Newark to deliver an address at the former Plane Street Colored Church as a fundraiser for his North Star newspaper and to rally action around the abolition of slavery.
“I’d like to reposition this period as Newark’s first black rebellion. African Americans rebelled or they were dissatisfied with their condition and sought to make a better condition for themselves,” said Williams, 43, who is working toward a master’s degree in American studies with a focus on public humanities. “For the university, it’s exciting because there was this noted thinker who came to the space where the city’s black activism took root.”
This April 17, Rutgers-Newark will celebrate the famed abolitionist’s life, legacy and ties to the city at Frederick Douglass Field, the site where the church once stood that now bears his name, at the corner of University Avenue and Warren Street. Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Douglass’s great-great-great grandson and cofounder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, will join more than 200 descendants of area abolitionists for the daylong event.
In addition to honoring Douglass, the event “Agitate! The Legacy of Frederick Douglass and Abolition in Newark” will acknowledge a nearby Underground Railroad stop and history of the local abolitionists who ran it. Plans call for unveiling a sculpture at the field designed by Williams, a longtime public artist and activist and city resident.
The piece features a metal cutout of Douglass’s face set before a 10-by-9-foot white granite background that is etched with historically significant accomplishments by the city’s early black settlers. Highlights include:
- Reverend Elymas Payson, abolitionist and pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, who invited Frederick Douglass to speak in Newark.
- Reverend William Weeks, whose anti-slavery preaching incited whites to riot when he invited a black barber to the altar.
- August 1st marches in 1838 and 1839 to commemorate emancipation in the West Indies and push abolition in the States.
- Irene Pataquam Mulford, the first black student to desegregate Newark high schools.
Noelle Lorraine Williams gives a brief background on the abolitionist community in Newark at the time of Frederick Douglass' visit in 1849
Dedicating these spaces to examples of black power is especially important because so many of the city’s existing monuments exclude achievements made by people of color, said Williams. But she hopes that coming face-to-face with their history will uplift Newark residents and transform conversations – both the ones they have about themselves and the ones others have about them.
“We need to empower the way we think of African Americans in Newark and the history and trajectory of their lives here,” she said. “Instead of thinking of them as disempowered folks coming to Newark during the Great Migration in the 1920s and ’30s, the truth is African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries were here working with other folks in New York and Connecticut and Philadelphia for abolition and the right to vote.”
Williams got her start as a student activist in high school working around queer feminist and issues involving students of color. She has long used her art to illustrate the often-overlooked history of African-American women. Those passions led her to Rutgers-Newark, where in December 2017 she started researching the lives of black women murdered during the city’s 1967 rebellion.
Williams became a fixture at the Newark Public Library. She poured over public records, church documents and newspaper archives. But her project veered in a different and more distant direction when she began piecing together details about Newark’s first black hospital and the Queen of Angels Church, which was started by black women. That’s when she was introduced to fellow history buff Todd Allen, a member of the Board of Directors of Frederick Douglass's Family Initiatives, who discovered details of Douglass’ trip to Newark.
The two reached out to Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor independently to share their findings: Allen with the intention of bringing to light the Douglass connection and Williams with the hope of elevating the work of the black activist community that summoned Douglass here.
With this celebration and the artwork, the pair accomplished both.
“Monuments are anchors. On a superficial level they are a marker that something happened in this space,’’ Williams said. “By illuminating these histories, Rutgers-Newark has the opportunity to show we are not just invested in this idea of ‘helping African Americans’ build Newark but expanding the vision of what Black Newark is by helping folks better learn about where they came from and all of the powerful ideas, institutions and culture they have contributed to this city for more than a century.”