Frederick Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America. Much has been written about the well-known abolitionist, who himself penned down his accomplishments in thousands of books and letters.
Today, he is not only remembered as an abolitionist but also as an author, activist, and ambassador. But did you know he was also a musician? Yes, Frederick Douglass could play the violin, and before he passed away, he shared his love of music with his family, including his son, Frederick Douglass, Jr., and grandson Joseph Douglass.
His grandson Joseph would become a concert violinist. Some have described him as the world’s first famous Black American violinist.
Born in the Anacostia area of Washington D.C. in 1869 to Charles and Mary Elizabeth Douglass, Joseph was the only child of the couple that would live to be an adult. And following in the path of his famous grandfather and father, he took up the violin while very young, receiving classical training at the New England Conservatory for five years and later the Boston Conservatory.
While studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, he would often perform before and after his grandfather’s lectures. Joseph lived with his family in the U Street Corridor of Washington, D.C., a neighborhood also called the “Black Broadway” due to its flourishing arts scene, according to one source. The neighborhood was also home to composer Duke Ellington and opera singer Madame Lillian Evanti.
Surrounded by music and the arts, Joseph would become the first nationally-known Black concert violinist and also the first Black violinist to tour the world as a performer. He toured abroad and in the U.S., particularly throughout the South and in Southern colleges to reach African-American audiences, as stated by this account.
It was at the age of 22 that he got his first big break as a concert violinist when he performed at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which was a day to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Joseph performed alongside other artists such as poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
In a career that spanned over three decades, Joseph performed in almost every Black educational institution in America and in several churches as well. On February 14, 1896, the violinist gave a concert to benefit a “home for friendless girls” at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C.
During this period, he became known by the Black press as “the most talented violinist of the race.” And like his famous grandfather, Joseph appeared regularly at the White House. He performed for U.S. Presidents William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Howard Taft. By 1910, he was performing at Carnegie Hall. The Black violinist also appeared at the Grand Military Concert sponsored by the U.S. Marine Band in Washington to commemorate the presidential inauguration of Grover Cleveland, according to blackamericaweb.
And that’s not all. Joseph was also the first violinist of any race to record music for the Victor Talking Machine Company, an American recording company and phonograph manufacturer, in 1914. Unfortunately, those recordings were never released.
But apart from his performances, he was also an educator and conductor. Joseph was a conductor at Howard University and director of its department of music. He also directed community music schools in New York providing music education to others. According to a history of Black American music, Joseph did not only become the first Black violinist to make transcontinental tours but was also the “direct inspiration for several young violinists who later became professionals.”
His widow, Fannie Douglass, donated his violin, which was a copy of the German Stradivarius, to the U.S. Department of Interior after his death in 1935. Joseph, a father of two, had contracted pneumonia when he passed away at age 66 in 1935.