Frederick Douglass was a prolific African American leader and activist. He was born in 1818, to an enslaved African American woman and an unknown white man, learned to read and write while enslaved in Baltimore, and began educating other slaves. In 1838, Douglass escaped from slavery and settled in Massachusetts, where he began giving speeches against slavery and wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an autobiography detailing his own experience as a slave.
During the Civil War, Douglass worked toward emancipation and continued his work as an abolitionist, serving five presidents in various positions. A lifelong activist, Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “Abolition of slavery had been the deepest desire and the great labor of my life.”
Erected in 1803, Stanhope Hall is the University's third oldest building—after Nassau Hall and Maclean House. Originally housing the college library, study halls, and two literary societies, Whig and Clio, it later became the site of administrative offices for the University. In 1915 the University Trustees gave it its present name in honor of Samuel Stanhope Smith, the seventh president of Princeton University, who oversaw its construction. In response to the growing racism in nineteenth-century ethnological studies, Smith delivered the lecture “An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species” to the American Philosophical Society, arguing that all humankind belongs to the same family and that diversity within the species should be attributed to environmental influences. Despite his recognition of the shared characteristics of humankind, Smith owned slaves. Stanhope Hall underwent a complete renovation 2007, preserving many of its period details, and is now home to the Department of African American Studies.
In 1983, when the Association of Black Princeton Alumni commissioned Hardison to sculpt a cast-iron bust of Frederick Douglass, they specifically requested that the artist portray Douglass’s younger self. The bust was meant to honor recipients of the University’s annual Frederick Douglass Award; thus, a younger version of the abolitionist was fitting. This rendered Hardison’s earlier sculpture, which showed Douglass as a bearded, wise man, inappropriate for the commission.
Douglass remains the most photographed individual of the nineteenth century, but representations that depict younger versions of him are rare. The best-known images of him date from the late 1870s. Thus, Hardison likely drew on a rare 1840s daguerreotype of the young Douglass to sculpt her bust for the Princeton commission. From this production, Hardison was able to capture a beardless, rigid young man quite different from typical representations.