Levy Lecture Series: Akbar Imhotep brings Frederick Douglass to life


Akbar Imhotep is a professional storyteller based in Atlanta, Ga. Since 1985 he has honed his craft, telling stories throughout suburban Atlanta and the Southeast. Many of his speaking engagements are at elementary schools, where he shares his passion for bringing Black leaders to life through historical dramatization. On Feb. 8, he presented the life of Frederick Douglass on the Levy Lecture Series virtual stage; it was the first time he had presented this story to an audience of adults.


Nearly 300 attendees watched and listened to Imhotep’s performance as he told the life story of Frederick Douglass. He was born in February 1817 or 1818, the product of rape, allegedly by the owner of the plantation where his mother, Harriet Bailey, was a slave. She gave him the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was separated from his mother in infancy and raised by his maternal grandparents in a cabin with a dirt floor. His mother lived on another plantation 12 miles away and visited him when she could, but she died when he was seven years old.


As a child Douglass overheard his grandparents talking about the evil actions committed by “Ole Massah,” the master of the plantation whose real name was Colonel Edward Lloyd. One day, his grandmother said they had to visit Ole Massah. She and his grandfather knew the reason: he was old enough to start doing chores to learn how to be a slave.


Douglass recalled that at the plantation she introduced him to other children who were playing in the front yard, including some siblings he had never heard of or met. He turned around for his grandmother and realized she had left him there. Thanks to Imhotep’s emotional oratory, five-year-old Douglass’ heartbreak was palpable to all who listened.


By living and doing chores around the Big House, Douglass saw firsthand how unfair and cruel slavery was. He recalled how the person in charge of minding the children would feed them by putting food in a trough placed directly on the table, forcing the children to compete with one another to fill their bellies. Only those who were agile and quick had any chance of satiation.


When Douglass was seven, he was given to another landowner and sent to Baltimore to be a companion for that landowner’s child. The landowner’s wife was a kind person and soon recognized Douglass’ sharp mind. She included him in the reading lessons she was giving to her son, and they sparked in him a lifelong desire to learn.

But when the husband found out he yelled at the wife, “Don’t teach him to read! If you teach him how to read, he’ll be no good to me as a slave! Don’t ever give him a reading lesson again!” The lessons stopped. But telling Douglass he couldn’t do something fueled his ambition and made him want to learn to read even more.


A few years later, Douglass continued his lessons by bartering with some teenagers he met while doing errands for his master. In exchange for extra fruit and vegetables that he took from the owner’s kitchen, he received lessons in reading and math and was soon proficient, reading whatever he could find, whenever he could. In his late teens he was sent to Baltimore, the result of another transfer between wealthy landowners, and was assigned to work on the docks. There he learned how to caulk wooden boats so they would be seaworthy. In Baltimore he also met Anna Murray, the woman who would change his life more than any other.


Murray was a Black woman who was born free. As their friendship grew, Douglass confided in her and spoke of his desire to escape Baltimore and live as a free man. Anna helped him escape. She sewed him a sailor’s uniform and gave him money so he could purchase boat and train tickets to travel to New York. Once he arrived, he sent word to Anna, and she joined him. They were married in New York and moved to Massachusetts, where they started their family and Douglass began his career as an orator, abolitionist, social reformer, writer and publisher.


Douglass was an ardent abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. He travelled abroad, wrote books, met U.S. presidents, and at his death in 1895, was one of the most famous Black men in the country. As Imhotep concluded his “visit” as Frederick Douglass, the audience exploded with questions and numerous messages of thanks and appreciation. Joseph Sanders typed, “Wonderful performance!” Anne Berkley enthused, “I feel as if I have actually met the great Frederick Douglass. Well done. Thank you.” Steven Lyons wrote, “This was a fantastic presentation! The reading I have done by and about Frederick Douglass literally came to life and will stay with me always! Outstanding!”


View Imhotep’s presentation on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.