When many people are young, they idolize a sports star, a famous singer or a well-known actor.
For Mike Glenn, however, that idol was Frederick Douglass.
Growing up, Glenn studied the well-known abolitionist’s life. He did grow up to become a professional athlete, playing in the NBA for a number of years and now working as an analyst for Atlanta Hawks broadcasts. But that fascination with Douglass hasn’t waned.
“Both of my parents were teachers, but primarily my mom was a strong history lover and she shared that with us when we were growing up,” Glenn said. “Frederick Douglass was a famous historical person so she would always tell us things that he said and did, and I read books on Douglass when I was a very young man, and I started collecting, later, a lot of things on Douglass.”
That interest in Douglass will be on full display at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center this month as items from Glenn’s personal collection will be incorporated into this year’s Black History Month exhibit at GJAC.
The full exhibit highlights local and national black history, with contributions from the United Ebony Society of Gwinnett County Inc., Discovery High School students and the Robbie Susan Moore Foundation. It also includes student art, a video about local black history and newspaper clippings of notable local African-Americans, including Norcross Mayor Craig Newton, who recently became the first black mayor of a Gwinnett city.
“We thought it’d be a great way to celebrate local history but recognize national icons, because the Black History Month exhibit last year also recognized some icons of black history, but we also featured some of the local aspects,” Gwinnett County Community Outreach Program Coordinator Nicole Love Hendrickson said.
The county will host a Spirit of Frederick Douglass program at the exhibit at 7 p.m. Feb. 20, with an actor performing as Douglass. That event will also include the distribution of 20 copies of a Bicentennial Edition of “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass” to Gwinnett students who are participating in a mentoring program.
Glenn said he hopes the exhibit will inspire people to take a scholarly approach to understanding history, but getting a grasp of what kind of a world Douglass lived in.
“Douglass himself even gave us that we should study, we should remember monuments and memorials dates of people to understand what they went through, the struggles they had, the context in which they lived,” Glenn said. “Oftentimes history just ignores the context and will just take the facts out of it and you will miss the real lesson in the story if you don’t understand the context.”
Douglass rose to prominence throughout the mid-to-late 19th century, after he escaped slavery and crafted the autobiographic narrative of his life as he became one of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement. He even met with President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War to discuss the treatment of black soldiers.
In 1873, he became the first black person to be nominated for vice president of the United States, even if the nomination came without his approval, when the Equal Rights Party Convention picked him for its ticket. He declined the nomination.
“He’s just so fascinating and a person so fundamental to American history, and a person so wise, his intellect was unbelievable,” Glenn said. “He’s just amazing. The more you read, it’s like the more intriguing he is so that’s why I started down the Douglass path if you would.”
Glenn said he wants to show Douglass’ life by putting it in the context of the 19th century so visitors can understand his perspective and where he was coming from.
That means there are people included in the exhibit who might not seem like they belong in a Black History Month exhibit — people such as Gens. Robert E. Lee and William T. Sherman, and Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens.
Glenn said presenting the mindsets and actions of those people helps provide context for the pre- and post-Civil War eras in which Douglass lived. The U.S. Supreme Court’s pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision is also touched on in the exhibit.
“I have their words so people can see what were they saying, what were these people believing, what did (Douglass) have to fight against,” Glenn said.
There is also a deep legacy that Douglass left, which Glenn said helped shape black history up to the present. He said Douglass’ views on equality, regardless of race or gender, laid the groundwork for later key figures in black history, including Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama.
“If you don’t understand Douglass, if you don’t know Douglass, if you haven’t studied and learned anything about Douglass, I don’t think you know American history,” Glenn said. “I don’t think it’s possible that you can know American history without knowing Frederick Douglass and what he did, said, stood for or how it impacted America.
“He basically laid the blueprints for slavery-free America. His vision, his views, his knowledge, nobody had the kind of foresight Douglass had … Douglass, I think, was the foremost intellectual and prophetic voice of that time.”
The Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center is located at 75 Langley Drive in Lawrenceville. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, but will be closed on Feb. 19 for Presidents Day.