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Surgeon amasses largest known Frederick Douglass collection

Walter Evans collection used for bio, movie on 19th century abolitionist

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Over the last 40 years, a Georgia man created the largest known collection of Frederick Douglass material, according to Douglass biographer David Blight.

Dr. Walter Evans is a retired surgeon who collected old books and African art – and quietly amassed a huge collection of material produced by the onetime slave-turned-abolitionist.

Frederick Douglass left a hefty paper trail during his 19th Century life as America’s strongest voice for its Black community. Evans found it irresistible.

Dr. Evans collected original images of the abolitionist who sternly posed for them regularly.  

Douglass was prolific writer. Though he'd learned to read while enslaved in Maryland, he had no formal education.  

Evans collected original copies of Douglass’ three autobiographies. 

Douglass wrote letters. He wrote speeches he delivered he across the country, then sold printed copies of them. He wrote articles for newspapers he published. When Douglass appeared in a city to give a speech, it was almost always a big deal; hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would often attend.

In an age where popular entertainment and mass communication were limited, Frederick Douglass was arguably America’s biggest celebrity – with paper evidence documenting much of his journey.

"Not just in the US but worldwide, he was the most photographed person in the 19th Century," Evans said. "For me, he was always a celebrity."

Evans’ collection provided source material for a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglass by David Blight. Former President Barack Obama’s production company is producing a movie based on that book.

Dr. Evans has sent his collection to Yale University’s Beinecke Library, which has digitized each item and posted it online.  

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