Aaaand we’re back! If you haven’t read Part I of our in-depth conversation with Living Historian Michael Crutcher, who modeled for the Frederick Douglass statue outside of the New-York Historical Society’s 77th Street entrance, we suggest you start there. You’ll read all about how and why Michael chose to become a Living Historian who portrays Frederick Douglass.
We sat down with him again to discover more about what it’s like to bring Frederick Douglass to life.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What is Living History to you?
Michael Crutcher: Living History is an attempt to bring the past to life and to place listeners into the past; to make them feel the emotions, both the hurt and the joy, that people felt in that time. In order to be a good Living Historian or historical presenter, one has to deliver the listeners from the present time into the past; they must allow visitors to time-travel—backwards—and feel what people felt then.
DCHM: How do you create this kind of time-travel as a Living Historian? What should your audiences look forward to when they meet you?
MC: They can look forward to being taken back to Douglass’s childhood and relating his feelings to their feelings. Relating to his absence from his mother, learning about the things he loved about his grandmother, and feeling the sadness he felt when his grandmother had to take him into the plantation. You know, I sometimes bring people to tears in telling that story. Knowing kids, I approach it differently depending on the age of the audience.
DCHM: What do you enjoy about speaking to kids?
MC: I’ve been to schools all over the country. One memorable event was when I was at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta. I spoke to the entire assembly and one student stood up in the middle of my speech and applauded. The principal told me afterward that he would not have expected the student who clapped to have been interested, but something I said touched him. It made me feel very good that I said something of meaning to him.
It’s amazing how there are still places I visit where kids don’t know who I am. You know I’ve been called Booker T. Washington? And even Colonel Sanders? I’m glad that Lexington, Kentucky, did just open Frederick Douglass High School this year. I made it out there to speak to its freshman class.
DCHM: Speaking of kids, did you ever imagine you would do anything like this when you were a kid?
MC: No. I liked history, but I wasn’t taught a lot of black history in grade school or high school—it wasn’t until I went to college that I took an actual course in black history. Not until I began doing my genealogy, when photos began to turn up of my grandfather and great grandfather who looked a lot like Frederick Douglass, did my interest begin to grow. That’s when I discovered my great grandfather, Daniel Gilchrist, served in the 13th US Colored Heavy Artillery. I actually made a trip to Washington, D.C., to retrieve his Civil War records and learned his wife, Phyllis, applied for his military pension. I learned more about myself and my ancestors when I did that.
The more I studied, the more I began to see similarities in Frederick Douglass’s and my early lives. He was raised by his grandmother and so was I. There were just a lot of things that made me feel close to his character.
DCHM: What advice would you give to kids who are interested in Living History?
MC: It doesn’t matter if they resemble the person they want to portray as long as they learn as much about them and get to the point where they feel as if they are speaking as that person. I have an advantage in that one of the things I enjoy most is seeing the look on the face of people when they see me even before I open my mouth or say anything.
I encourage people to study Frederick Douglass and anybody from history they are interested in. If they choose to portray them, then it’s even harder, but now I can pretty much answer any question about Frederick Douglass. All the time, people ask questions of me that they already know the answer to, but they want to know if I know. And I usually do! I’ve had a lot of people say they’ve never enjoyed history more than when they heard me speak.
DCHM: Are there certain stories about Frederick Douglass that you think are important to tell?
MC: It depends on the audience. For some, it is important to know his humble upbringings and the fact that he personally endured slavery for 20 years and escaped as a fugitive. Not until he went to England and spoke about the horrors of slavery in America did the people of England raise more than $700 for him to go back to America and purchase his freedom. For some, they need to hear that story. For others, I think it’s important that they hear his story in order to honor those other people who sacrificed and endured slavery and in particular those who died of slavery. On Memorial Day, I’m going to Arlington National Cemetery to give the speech that Frederick Douglass gave at Arlington in honor of the unknown dead. It’s one of his most powerful speeches.
DCHM: Does his story and the history of enslaved peoples get told enough in Living History?
MC: Perhaps not as much as it should be. There are many people who think the Civil Rights movement started with Martin Luther King Jr. He was a great man who did great things, but there were many people who came before him—who fought and died for freedom and liberty—who need to be recognized. Because of them, King was able to carry the torch. I often say, “Before there was Marcus Garvey, before there was Malcolm X, before there was Martin Luther King, before there was Rosa Parks—there was Frederick Douglass.”
DCHM: Do you approach portraying people from the past differently from other Living Historians?
MC: I’ve noticed that Lincoln reenactors all have a different interpretation of Lincoln. Some of them look at the humorous side of Lincoln and others are more serious. It’s amazing how some of them look like Lincoln and some of them don’t, but they all believe in Lincoln and that they are Lincoln. There is a much smaller group of Frederick Douglass Living Historians. I believe there can’t be too many teachers, there can’t be too many preachers, and there can’t be too many people portraying the legacy of Frederick Douglass! My portrayal comes from my heart.
DCHM: When did you first encounter other Living Historians?
MC: I once went to a national meeting of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, and there must have been 50 Living Historians portraying Abraham Lincoln. One of them stood up and said he would like for me to be a member of the association, and they unanimously voted me in! Another Lincoln presenter—with whom I became great friends—walked up to me after the meeting and asked emphatically, “Where. Have. You. Been?” Since then, I attend their annual meeting almost every year, and I’ve been the keynote speaker a couple of times.
DCHM: Is there something you wish your audience would ask you?
MC: No, it’s whatever comes to their minds. I was once asked if I change my underwear! It turned out that they had learned soldiers didn’t get to change clothes during the Civil War, so they asked me if Frederick Douglass changed his clothes. I thought that was funny!
DCHM: What would you like to tell people who don’t get the chance to meet you in person?
MC: I would want them to know where Frederick Douglass came from and—because of where he came from—he was able to accomplish great things. I always tell kids and adults alike that it doesn’t matter where you come from or if you don’t have what the person sitting beside you has. As long as you always try to learn as much as you can and do the best you can, you can have or accomplish anything in life.
DCHM: Thanks so much for sharing that lesson here and at the Museum, Michael! It was an honor to reunite you with the statue and see Frederick Douglass teach and answer questions from our family visitors!
—Written by J.M. Wasko, DiMenna Children’s History Museum