Frederick Douglass: An abolitionist returned to Bristol on Mon 28 May

“Forgetting is the illness of our time.”

– Frederick Douglass

At 8am on Bank Holiday Monday 28 May, a small crowd was gathering on the green in St Paul’s where the statue of Alfred Fagon stands. They were waiting in excited anticipation for the start of a unique historical walking tour, in which figures of film, theatre, politics and religion coming together to mark the bi-centerary of one Frederick Douglass – abolitionist, orator and political reformer, retracing the steps of his 1846-47 campaign trail.

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818, eleven years after the slave trade was outlawed in the UK but nearly fifty years before slavery was abolished in the US. Aged just 20, Douglass bravely escaped and gained his freedom. Having learned to read by stealth as a slave, he agitated by any means necessary in support of anti-slavery, searing the American conscience with his charismatic orations and raising funds for this work during his tours of Europe. It was these tours that brought him to Bristol.

In this landmark commemoration project between Colston Hall, Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Cathedral, Douglass walked the streets of Bristol once again. Appearing in the personages of writer, director and performer Kwame Kwei-Armah, Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule, Hollywood actor Danny Sapani, Chaplain to the Queen Rose Hudson-Wilkin and Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, the crowd heard extracts from Douglass’ thought-provoking speeches penned over a lifetime of campaigning, and adapted by Dr Edson Burton to imagine what Douglass might make of the Bristol of today, and encouraging us to ask the question: who are our unsung heroes of change?

From the Alfred Fagon statue the diverse and steadily growing crowd moved through St Paul’s, the walk punctuated by stories and explanations from locals and historians about the significance of sites along the way.

Stops including the Wesleyan chapel of The New Room, The Seven Stars Pub, Marsh Street, Queen Square, Bristol Cathedral, City Hall and finally, Wills Memorial Building. At each site, the spirit of Frederick Douglass resurfaced through the voices of the cast as he told his own story as well as speaking on matters such as education, religion, how we view the past and crucially, how we can begin to enact change.

By the time the tour reached Bristol Cathedral, the crowd of around 300 people piled into the ancient church to hear Rose Hudson Wilkin speak from the pulpit.

The tour ended with a powerful performance of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by vocalist Carleen Anderson at Wills Memorial Building, and a standing ovation for the cast of Fredericks and Dr Edson Burton. The day was a thought-provoking and uplifting experience for all involved.

Scroll down to read some audience reactions from the day and to see the full gallery of pictures.

Photography by Jon Craig.


During the course of the day, the spirit of Frederick Douglass appeared in the persons of:
Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director of the Young Vic
Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet
Danny Sapani, Actor (Misfits, The Crown, Black Panther)
Rose Hudson Wilkin, Chaplain to the Queen
Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol
At the end of the tour, celebrated vocalist Carleen Anderson performed at the Wills Memorial Building.
Devised by
Edson Burton with Tom Morris
Year of Change
The Frederick Douglass Project is part of the Year of Change programme, and emerged from conversations between Bristol Old Vic, Colston Hall and Bristol-based writer and historian Dr. Edson Burton, in search of a project that could meaningfully form an annual commemoration of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its legacy. Edson Burton adapted Frederick Douglass’ words for this event.

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