Have you recently passed by the New-York Historical Society and taken a look at our statue of Frederick Douglass? Snapped a selfie with him? If you haven’t, 2018 is the perfect time to do it because we are celebrating 200 years since Douglass was born by getting to know the lesser known origins of the statue. In fact, we’re getting to know the lesser known person who modelled for the sculpture.
The statues of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were produced by StudioEIS and installed outside of the New-York Historical Society when it reopened in 2011 after a three-year renovation. We interviewed StudioEIS the following year to discover how they sculpted Douglass and Lincoln, but—if you read closely—one question went unanswered: “Where do you find the models?”
They found one in Kentucky in the form of Living Historian Michael Crutcher. Retired from the US Army and a former assistant professor, Crutcher had been portraying Frederick Douglass for almost a decade before he inspired the vision of Douglass crafted by StudioEIS. He brought Douglass to life at the Museum and continues to reenact the historic figure’s principles for audiences all over the world. We recently sat down with Michael to get to know more about the man behind our stature.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: How would you describe your work as a Living Historian to our readers?
Michael Crutcher: I want to bring history to life—I want listeners to be moved into the past in order to make them feel as if what they’re hearing and experiencing is present. I’m told people often feel as if they were actually in the past. And that’s not an experience that they’ve had before! That’s the effect I want it to have on them—I want them to feel as if the spirit of Frederick Douglass is letting them to actually listen to Frederick Douglass.
DCHM: Why did you choose to dress as and reenact the deeds of Frederick Douglass?
MC: I started reenacting as a soldier in the American Civil War in the reactivated 12th United States Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment at Camp Nelson. (My great-grandfather was in the 13th US Colored Heavy Artillery at the same place, which is only about 10-15 minutes from where I actually live today!) One evening, my wife and I were going through some historic photographs and ran across a picture of Frederick Douglass’s son. My wife said, “Is that you? He looks a lot like you.” Then, one of my children walked through the room, saw the photograph, and asked us where we had gotten such an old photo of me. I just put two and two together and decided to portray Frederick Douglass. After that, one thing led to another.
DCHM: What do you remember about creating your impression of Douglass for the first time?
MC: At the time, my hair was still quite short (but it was turning grey). I went out and bought a wig, got home, and stuck it on my head. It turned out kind of funny because my wife told me to never wear that thing out of the house! She said, “Just let your hair grow. I’m sure Douglass’s hair was not always long and your hair will eventually grow to be his length,” and I did just that.
I also attended a three-week long revival at my wife’s church. The evangelist said he wanted everyone to come up and pray for something at the end of the revival—it could be for anything. I was sitting licking my chops thinking, “I’m going to ask for everything!” On that last night, though, I knelt down and all of those things left my mind. All I could think of was God giving me a message for people. About three months later, I was in Washington, D.C., portraying Frederick Douglass. And there were people yelling at me from a block away, “Frederick Douglass! We’re glad you’re back, man. We need you.”
It’s been ironic for me—things I’ve done, places I’ve gone, people I’ve met. There are times when I’ve gotten tired and say, “I’m tired. I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” Then, it dawns on me that I prayed for it. I’ve influenced people all over and there truly are times when I really feel as if I embody Douglass’s spirit. I’m now known by reenactors all over the country as the Spirit of Frederick Douglass.
DCHM: That’s such a meaningful way to begin portraying someone from the past! How did you get to bring him to life in Washington, D.C., only three months later?
MC: The first time I made a public appearance as Frederick Douglass, it was nothing that I was invited for. I caught wind that the University of Kentucky was having their annual Black History program. So, I donned my Frederick Douglass attire, combed my hair as best I could to look like his did, and headed out. I got there just before the program started, and the person in charge of the event was at the door. When I walked in, her mouth fell open—she delayed the program and pulled me aside to see if she could call me up on stage. I believe most of the people stood up in honor of Frederick Douglass.
From that day forward, I stopped reenacting as a soldier with the 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery and began to portray Frederick Douglass. The director of the African American Civil War Museum, Dr. Frank Smith, was in attendance at the next event I attended. He told me that they had Frederick Douglass reenactors come and go in Washington, D.C., but, he said, “there were none like me.” A few months later he invited me up. And I was introduced to Frederick Douglass’s great-great-grandson!
From then on, things just began to happen. I was invited to ride in the carriage with someone who portrayed Abraham Lincoln as grand marshal of the Remembrance Day Parade in Gettysburg, PA. That was another honor! I’ve attended just about every year because, if I don’t go, I hear it the next year. People say, “We came just to see you and you weren’t here! We couldn’t find you!” It is interesting the way people react and respond to me, or the spirit of Frederick Douglass. (Author’s note: Remembrance Day is a celebration that brings Civil War Living Historians from across the nation to honor the soldiers and civilians of the American Civil War in conjunction with the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.)
DCHM: How did you come to model for StudioEIS to make our statue of Frederick Douglass?
MC: I received a phone call from StudioEIS and they asked me if I would be interested in doing it. “Of course!” I was thinking. It was another honor that was bestowed upon me. They got me a plane ticket and flew me up there. It was a really great experience seeing the professionalism and experiencing the kindness they exhibited toward me. I really wanted to make it up for the unveiling, but I didn’t get to do that. I’ve only seen it online! When I appear at the New-York Historical Society as Frederick Douglass this year, it will be the first time I’ve seen it. That’s why I’m so excited!
DCHM: We know from a photograph that StudioEIS sent us that you had to pose for pictures that they then used as references for the statue. Could you paint a picture of what the experience of modelling for them was like?
MC: It’s amazing the number of photographs they took and the number of outfits I had to put on! I probably wore two to three different outfits, and they took pictures from every angle possible. It seemed to me like they had me on railroad tracks and I was moved around on those tracks in a kind of semi-circle. I don’t know how many pictures they took, but I guess they had to take that many to get everything right!
DCHM: What was your favorite part of that photo shoot? Do you have a favorite outfit?
MC: The outfit that they used for the model in the statue was my own black coat that I still wear. When I appear at public events, I will bring two outfits, if not three. And I might possibly change during the day if I feel if it is necessary. It is said that in his later years, Frederick Douglass favored and was rarely seen without a red vest, so I wear a red vest now. When I’m at a formal event, I wear a grey cravat with a red stone on it. It’s one of my favorite dress-up pieces. (Author’s note: A cravat is similar to a modern-day bowtie, but larger.)
DCHM: How does it feel to have that clothing and your impression of Douglass preserved in our statue?
MC: When I showed my wife the picture of the statue on your website, she said, “You’ve been immortalized!” I told her, “Well, Frederick Douglass has been immortalized,” but she insisted that I looked so much like the statue that I had also been immortalized. “Well,” I replied, “only for what I do for him and his legacy.” Still, it was probably the greatest honor that has been bestowed upon me since I’ve been portraying him.
DCHM: It really does sound like an honor, Michael. Thanks for sharing that memory with us!
That’s all the time we have to share some of our in-depth conversation with Michael Crutcher for now, but check back for Part II on History Detectives soon!
—Written by J.M. Wasko, DiMenna Children’s History Museum
TOP BANNER PHOTO CREDITS
Photograph by Static Moments Photography, Courtesy of Michael Crutcher