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Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass


Case & Getchell, Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, 1863, albumen print, 3 3/8 × 2 1/4 in. (8.6 × 5.5 cm). Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

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Lewis H. Douglass (1840–1908) was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the son of the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray-Douglass. Both Lewis and his brother Charles enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts, the first Union regiment in which black men could serve (for which their father actively recruited). Lewis was soon promoted to sergeant major, the highest military rank a black man could then attain. He was wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, during which a third of the troops were killed or injured. Two days after the battle, Lewis wrote of the ordeal to his future wife, Amelia Loguen: “The regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment, not a man flinched, though it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet. Our men would close up again, but it was no use, we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of there alive I cannot tell, but I am here.”

Medically discharged from the army in 1864 as a result of his wounds compounded by illness, Lewis Douglass returned to the Washington, DC, area and married Loguen. For a while he worked as a teacher for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that helped former slaves purchase land, establish schools, legalize their marriages, and navigate life as free citizens. He was later hired as a typesetter by the Government Printing Office and was repeatedly subjected to acts of racial intimidation when he tried to join the printers’ union. He persevered and forced the union to open its doors to black members.

Lewis Douglass continued to work for racial equality as the editor of the New National Era, a weekly newspaper that addressed issues affecting the black community. He was also a one-term member of the legislative council of the District of Columbia, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant. One of his accomplishments was introducing a bill that required local restaurants to post their prices so they could not overcharge people of color—a frequent tactic for keeping black diners away. After suffering a stroke in 1904, Lewis Douglass declined in health. He died four years later at the age of sixty-seven.

For this portrait in uniform, the young sergeant major chose an impressive full-length format. With one leg forward and arms folded across the chest, his pose conveys a quiet confidence and pride. His forthright and determined gaze engages the viewer directly.

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