Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Spirit of Frederick Douglass Inside the Kingsport School Named After Him

Frederick Douglass died in 1895. To anyone's knowledge, the famed African-American statesman, orator and journalist has never visited the area where Kingsport, Tennessee is now located. Nor did he probably ever visit East Tennessee itself.

It does make sense. Kingsport became a city 22 years after his death, and it was 44 years from his death that, at the urging of the African-American community, a city he had never visited, named its only all-black school after him.

But the descendants of those Riverview residents who campaigned for the name "Frederick Douglass High School," will get to see the esteemed Mr. Douglass on a regular basis.

His likeness will be etched in stone, permanently displayed in the Douglass Community Room, in the building formerly named after him.

"There have been, throughout the ages, statesmen who have really changed the way we look at the world around us," says Bonnie Macdonald, Program Administrator for the City of Kingsport’s Cultural Arts Division. "Frederick Douglass was one of those statesmen. Of course, the high school that was named after him, bears that same sense of statesmanship. It is a connection for many Douglass alumni, the Sons and Daughters of Douglass, that makes this statue totally appropriate for the Douglass Community Room to have on display."


Mrs. Macdonald says, the suggestion of a bust of Frederick Douglass to honor his memory, came up at one of the input sessions early on in the renovation process for the V.O. Dobbins building, and was instantly recognized as a possibility. She says, the nationwide influence of Frederick Douglass and the fact that the community at that time, chose to commemorate his achievements by having an educational institution named after him, was the biggest factor years later, in the city selecting his likeness to be cast in stone, inside the building that once bore his name. "After checking, we found that it would be very easy to do," she says, "and so we put out a search for someone to do it."


"Dineen West (architect of the V.O. Dobbins renovation) actually found a bust of Frederick Douglass on the website of a sculptor in Maryland," Mrs. Macdonald said. "Steven Weitzman had apparently done quite a few historic figures, and so we commissioned him at that point. He is preparing for Kingsport a bust of Frederick Douglass."

Click here to read the biograhy of artist and sculptor Steven Weitzman,

Click here to see Steven Weitzman's impressive resume, including sculptures and artwork he has done before, and where his artwork has been displayed.

The Frederick Douglass bust for the V.O. Dobbins Sr. Complex is being made of "cast" stone. Cast stone is man-made material that resembles coral stone or other type of natural stone. Cast stone is very expensive, and is often duplicated at a fraction of the cost.

The cost of the Frederick Douglass bust is $4,000.

"We considered a bronze statue," says Mrs. Macdonald. "The cost would have been so high that it would have eliminated some other projects that we had planned for the building. I think the cast stone will be quite elegant and will accomplish its job. To date, most of our sculpture in Kingsport is relatively new and mostly modern comtemporary, because that's what people like. But this is a more figurative, historic piece that resembles the artwork of that period, and it looks like all the pictures you see of Frederick Douglass. We feel that Mr. Weitzman has really captured his true and direct likeness, almost as if Frederick Douglass himself had posed for the work. The authenticity is remarkable."

The bust of Frederick Douglass is 2 feet by 8 inches, by 12 inches by 16 inches. It has his face, his beard, his coat, tie. "You can definitely see that he is a statesman," Mrs. Macdonald says.

"We feel that everyone who uses the Community Room will harken to the history of the statesman himself, and can acknowledge that history and the nationwide contribution he made."

The bust of Frederick Douglass will arrive in Kingsport and the V.O. Dobbins Sr. Complex in mid to late June. At that time, it will be placed in its permanent home, with a plaque and an explanation of who it is, and the historic significance to the school.

The invitation for his likeness to reside in Kingsport has definitely been "cast in stone."