On Sept. 28th, 2018, the Willits Book Trust of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting presented copies of the Autobiography of an American Slave to a group of Cumberland County College Equal Opportunity Fund Students at Historic Bethel Othello African Methodist Church in Greenwich, New Jersey. The students were taking part in a Freedom Tour, Freedom Seekers, Free People of Color and Communities of Faith in the Greenwich Area to explore Underground Railroad sites near Delaware Bay.
Willits decision to distribute Frederick Douglass’ autobiography to young people stemmed from our recognition of Douglass as a remarkable man of the nineteenth century and our interest in keeping important stories of abolition and self-determination alive. The Narrative is listed by the Library of Congress as one of 88 books that shaped America and its capacity to recreate the horrors of slavery, while recounting the bravery of freedom seekers is unparalleled. Re-published by the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative on the occasion of the 200th birthday of Frederick Douglass as part of the Million Abolitionists project, the 1845 autobiography became an instant bestseller when it was first published, putting Douglass’ life in danger as he had sought his own freedom from slavery only seven years earlier. According to FDFI, the Narrative helped change the course of the U.S. Abolitionist Movement in the mid-nineteenth century and has been changing the lives of readers ever since.
Frederick Douglass learned early that knowledge was his pathway to freedom. The college students who received these books have each committed to pursuing clear educational goals. Additional book presentations in Cumberland County, now in the planning stages, include a collaboration with the NAACP and the Bridgeton Municipal Youth to Youth Alliance, to involve high school students in discussing the book and developing related service learning projects, in keeping with the mission of the Million Abolitionists project. Willits’ involvement with the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives will also involve a future partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative and new Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.