Sepia toned photograph of a man with white hair sitting at a desk in a library.

Unidentified Photographer, Frederick Douglass in his Cedar Hill library, c. 1890, photography, 24.5 x 19.6 cm. National Park Service, FRDO 3886.

“Classica Africana”: Black American Participation in Nineteenth-Century Classicism

Elizabeth S. Humphrey

Unidentified Photographer, Frederick Douglass in his Cedar Hill library, c. 1890, photography, 24.5 x 19.6 cm. National Park Service, FRDO 3886.

As Antiquities & America illustrates, classicism permeated the United States from the nation’s origins in the eighteenth century. Attention to the classics made its way into educational systems, public and private library collections, architecture, decorative arts, and fine arts. Regardless of the countless opportunities available to engage with the classics, these avenues were not accessible to the majority of Black Americans across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially before the Civil War. Several barriers prevented Black Americans from engaging with classicism: the enslavement of Africans and African Americans; laws prohibiting the education of enslaved people; and prevailing beliefs about the “inherent” inferiority of Black people. Despite this late bloom of Black classicism, also known as “Classica Africana,” there were some individuals engaged with the classics throughout the antebellum period (1815–1861). Frederick Douglass’s library collection and Edmonia Lewis’s artistic practice offer us two opportunities to explore the various ways Black Americans participated in classicism and allow us to examine their motivations.

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) began engaging with classicism at an early age, and his participation evolved throughout his lifetime. Born enslaved, he quickly learned the value of literacy and oratory speech and their connection to freedom. To begin his self-education, Douglass bought Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator (1817), a collection of political speeches, dialogues, and essays from the ancient and modern past. In Douglass’s 1845 memoir, he recalled reading The Columbian Orator every chance he had. Among the pages he read were several passages recounting ancient history, including “Speech of a Roman General” by P. Emilius; “Speech before the Roman Senate” by Cato; and an extract from Cicero’s “Oration against Catiline.” According to historian Margaret Malamud, “the study of classical and neo-classical oratory remained an essential component of rhetorical education in schools, academies, and colleges.” These educational institutions often barred access to Black Americans. In Douglass’s case, his independent study of The Columbian Orator allowed him to learn oratorical skills that he would later utilize for public speeches and debates advocating for abolitionism.

A photo of an open book

Caleb Bingham, The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces, Together with Rules, Calculated to Improve Youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence, Boston: Printed for Caleb Bingham and Co., 1817, leatherbound, 17.5 x 11x 3.02 cm. National Park Service FRDO 650.

Douglass’s private library collection at Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, Washington, DC, contained two copies of The Columbian Orator. Also contained in Douglass’s library were various books published across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including translations of classical epics, accounts of ancient history, Greek and Latin language textbooks and dictionaries, classical orations, and books detailing the culture and art of the ancient Mediterranean. Of note among his collection are two books: Karl Baedeker’s Egypt, Handbook for Travelers (1885) and Martin R. Delaney’s Principia of Ethnology: the Origin of Races and Color, with an Archeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization (1879). Principia of Ethnology looked to archaeological evidence to draw connections between ancient Egypt and modern peoples of African descent. Egypt, Handbook for Travelers offered travelers on the Grand Tour a guide for navigating modern Egypt as well as a history on ancient sites. Some nineteenth-century African Americans and abolitionists declared that ancient Egypt was the progenitor of modern-day African Americans. They often used the history, imagery, and material culture of the ancient Mediterranean to support their arguments. During this period, African Americans and abolitionists also argued that Egypt was the true cradle of Western civilization and informed Greek and Roman culture.

Sepia toned photograph of a man with white hair sitting at a desk in a library.

Unidentified Photographer, Frederick Douglass in his Cedar Hill library, c. 1890, photography, 24.5 x 19.6 cm. National Park Service, FRDO 3886.

Frederick Douglass had a particular interest in engaging with ancient Egypt and visiting the country. Douglass supported arguments for African Americans’ cultural and historical ties to ancient Egypt and Carthage. While traveling through Europe on his own version of the Grand Tour (1886–1887) and visiting ancient sites in Italy, Douglass expressed his desire to travel to Egypt, though not just to visit the ruins. Douglass wrote:

 “I confess, however, that my desire to visit Egypt did not rest entirely upon the basis thus foreshadowed. I had a motive far less enthusiastic and sentimental; an ethnological purpose in the pursuit of which, I hoped to turn my visit to some account in combatting American prejudice against the darker colored races of mankind, and at the same time to raise colored people somewhat in their own estimation and thus stimulate them to higher endeavors. I had a theory, for which I wanted the support of facts in the range of my own knowledge.”

Ultimately his travels did not fully support his initial theory, though he described modern Egyptians’ skin tone as closer to fairer-skinned Black Americans.

Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907) followed a different trajectory toward classicism. Lewis was influenced primarily by the artistic and material legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. Born a free Black and Anishinaabe/Ojibwa woman, Lewis benefited from her brother’s support of her formal education in both secondary school and at Oberlin College, one of the few colleges that accepted women and Black students. Lewis was enrolled in Oberlin’s Young Ladies Department, which offered beginning Latin and line drawing. While at Oberlin, Lewis received art training that most likely consisted of drawing from plaster casts, which often derived from copies of Greco-Roman sculptures.

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, marble, 41.25 x 11 x 17 in. Howard University Art Gallery.

Lewis ultimately settled in Rome as a next step in her artistic development. Rome was a hub for American sculptors like Edmonia Lewis due to the abundance of ancient Roman art and marble—the preferred medium for neoclassical sculpture. Lewis adapted formal classical elements like contrapposto and frontal composition to her sculptures, which frequently emphasized American history and themes. Such is the case in Forever Free (1867), where Lewis depicts a subdued moment of celebration and optimism after emancipation. Ancient history and collections of antiquities also informed Lewis’s practice.

In The Death of Cleopatra (1875), Lewis chose a subject embroiled in debate. Nineteenth-century Americans questioned Cleopatra’s ethnicity and her connection to ancient Egypt. While some claimed that Cleopatra was of Greek ancestry, others argued that Cleopatra had Egyptian, and therefore African, ancestry. While this continued throughout the nineteenth century, Edmonia Lewis chose to sculpt Cleopatra after ancient coins that circulated during the queen’s reign. One reviewer commented on Lewis’s depiction of Cleopatra: “Miss Lewis, on the other hand, followed the coins, medals, and other authentic records in giving her Cleopatra an aquiline nose and prominent chin of the Roman type, for the Egyptian Queen appears to have had such features rather than such as would more positively suggest her Grecian descent.” Art historians Charmaine Nelson and Kirsten Pai Buick offer possible motivations behind Lewis’s use of ancient evidence to derive her white or Greek depiction of Cleopatra. Nelson argues that this was Lewis’s way of separating her identity from her sculptural work while Buick suggests that Lewis understood the stakes of rendering a “Black Cleopatra” and chose a different approach. Regardless of her reasoning, tangible classical resources provided Lewis the opportunity to develop her own representation of the ancient queen.

Edmonia Lewis, Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble, 63 x 31 ¼ x 46 in. (160 x 79.4 x 116.8 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois, 1994.17.

Frederick Douglass and Edmonia Lewis are two examples of Black Americans participating in the culture of American classicism albeit for varied reasons. Frederick Douglass’s self-taught engagement with classics symbolized his desire to participate fully in American culture on his own terms. Douglass invoked classical language, literature, and oratory speech for abolitionist arguments and to understand present-day conditions of the new American Republic. He looked to ancient Egypt for a cultural lineage while also pursuing full rights and freedoms afforded to white Americans. Lewis, on the other hand, benefited from a formal education in the liberal arts, which drew heavily from classical languages and art. As a sculptor versed in neoclassicism, her decision to live in Rome allowed her to view classical art available in the region and consult collections that housed ancient material culture. These collections, and Greco-Roman art in general, informed her sculptural work, which bridged neoclassical elements with American subject matter. Nineteenth-century debates regarding the utility of a classical education circulated among African Americans, as people advocated for practical training over a liberal arts education. Within this discourse, individuals like Douglass and Lewis provide examples of how Black Americans could participate in classicism and demonstrate how valuable the classics were to the pursuit of emancipation, freedom, intellectualism, and creative expression.

Appendix: Selected Books from Frederick Douglass’s Library Collection
Author  Date  Title 
John M’clintock      Second Book in Greek  
John M’clintock and Geo R. Crooks      A First Book in Greek  
Homer (Translated by Mr. Pope)   1720–1721  The Iliad of Homer, Volume I, II, II, V, VI  
John Gast   1747   The History of Greece from the Accession of Alexander of Macedon Till Its Final Subjection to the Roman Power, Vols. I-II  
Homer   1757–1758  The Odyssey of Homer, Volume I-V  
Caleb Bingham   1817   The Columbian Orator (two copies)  
Edward Gibbon; U.S. Government   1819   The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Vols. I-IX  
C. F. Volney   1823   The Ruins, Or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires  
Wm. L. Allison   1829   Socrates, Plato the Grecian Sophists  
R.R. Madden   1841   Egypt and Mohammed Ali: Illustrative of the Condition of His Slaves & Subjects  
The Religious Tract Society   1842   Ancient History: Containing the History of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Medes, Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, the Seleucidae in Syria, the Parthians & the Cartheginians  
Sir E. Bolser Lytdon   1847   Rienzi: the Last of the Roman Tribunes  
Watson, John Selby   1852   Sallust, Florus, & Velleius Paterculus  
Rev. J. G. Cooper   1855   Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera, or, the Works of Virgil: With Copious Notes, Mythological, Biographical, Historical, Geographical, Philosophical, Astronomical, Critical, and Explanatory in English Designed for the Use of Students in the Colleges, Academies, and Other Seminaries in the United States: Specially Calculated to Lighten the Labour of the Teacher, and to Lead the Student into a Knowledge of the Poet : to which is Added, a Table of Reference 
Bayard Taylor   1856   A Journey to Central Africa; or, Life & Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile  
Asahel C. Kendrick   1860   An Introduction to Greek Language for Use in Schools & Private Learners  
Charles Anthon   1862   A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Greek and Roman Authors, Volume 1  
Madeline? Leslie   1864   A New Dictionary of Quotations from the Greek, Latin, and Modern Languages  
William Shakespeare   1870–1900   King Henry VIII and Troilus and Cressida  
Georg Ebers   1875   An Egyptian Princess; an Historical Novel  
C.D. Yonge   1879   Select Orations of M.T. Cicero  
Martin R. Delaney   1879   Principal of Ethnology: the Origin of Races and Color, with an Archeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization  
Albion W. Tourgee   1880   The Invisible Empire: Part 1  
William S. Scarborough   1881   First Lesson in Greek: Adapted to the Greek Grammars of Goodwin and Hadley, and Designed as an Introduction to Xenophon’s Anabasis and Similar Greek  
Albion W. Tourgee   1884   An Appeal to Caesar  
John Murray   1884   For Travellers in Greece and a Detailed Description of Athens, Ancient and Modern, Classical and Medieval  
Henry M. Field   1885   The Greek Islands & Turkey After the War  
Karl Baedeker (Publisher)   1885   Egypt: Handbook for Travelers  
Lewis R. Packard   1886   Studies in Greek Thought: Essays Selected from the Papers of the Late Lewis R. Packard  
William H. Rav   1892   Illustrations of Greek Mythology and Greek Art by Sarah Amelia Scoll. 
Unknown Author    1893  Prospectus of a Complete Guide to the Cairo Egyptological Exhibit at The World’s Fair 


Elizabeth S. Humphrey ’14 is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Delaware.


The term “Classica Africana” was coined by classics historian Michele Ronnick in 1996. Ronnick notes that “the opportunity for African Americans in significant numbers to obtain traditional liberal arts training in classics really began at the end of the Civil War and reached its peak at the turn of the century.” See Michele Valerie Ronnick, “Twelve Black Classicists,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 11:3 (2004), 86. link 

The study of Black Americans’ engagement with the classics is a relatively recent subfield of study. Most of the existing scholarship focuses on late nineteen/early twentieth century academicians and intellectuals, scholarship produced by Black classicists, and classicism’s impact on American authors. For recent discourse on Black classicism, see Emily Greenwood, “Re-rooting the classical tradition: new directions in black classicism,” Classical Receptions Journal 1:1 (2009): 87–103; EOS Africana, a scholarly society dedicated to Africana receptions of Ancient Greece and Rome; and the exhibition 15 Black Classicists (2018), curated by Michele Valerie Ronnick and organized by the Blackburn Gallery of Art at Howard University and the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University.


William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely, eds. Frederick Douglass: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 32.


Caleb Bingham, The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces, Together with Rules, Calculated to Improve Youth and Others in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence (Boston: Printed for Caleb Bingham and Co., 1817). Text-fiche, Early American Imprints, Series 2, no. 40251, A2. 


Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition & Activism (London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016), 88–89.


See appendix below for a selection of books from Douglass’s library that refer to classical knowledge and the history of the ancient Mediterranean. Douglass’s library and home also contained neoclassical sculpture, signaling his awareness of American classicism in the decorative and fine arts. For a selection of art, books, and objects owned by Douglass, visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site’s Virtual Museum Exhibit. link


Malamud, African Americans and the Classics, 63, 149–50, 163.


In one lecture, he professed: “We traced the entangled threads of history and of civilization back to their sources in Africa. We dwelt on the grandeur, magnificence and stupendous dimensions of Egyptian architecture, and held up the fact, now generally admitted, that that race was master of mechanical forces of which the present generations of man are ignorant…We are a dark people—so were they. They stood between us and Europeans in point of complexion, as well as in point of geography. We have contended—and not illogically—that if the fact of colour was no barrier to civilization in their case, it cannot be in ours.” Frederick Douglass, Lecture on the Inauguration of the Douglass Institute, The Liberator, October 13, 1865, quoted in Malamud, African Americans and the Classics, 186. 


John R. McKivigan, The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Two: Autobiographical Writings: Volume 3: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: Book 1: The Text and Editorial Apparatus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 426.


For an analysis of Frederick Douglass’s observations in Egypt, see Robert S. Levine, “Road to Africa: Frederick Douglass’s Rome,” in Roman Holiday: American Writers and Artists in Nineteenth-Century Italy (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 226–246.


Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 1–2.


Oberlin College ultimately barred Lewis from graduating after she was accused of poisoning her two white roommates. Lewis was acquitted of the charges after a six-day trial, but Oberlin did not permit her to register for her final term. See Buick, Child of the Fire, 8–11. 


Susanna W. Gold, “The Death of Cleopatra/The Birth of Freedom: Edmonia Lewis at the New World’s Fair,” Biography 35:2 (Spring 2012), 325. For a discussion of American women sculptors active in Rome, see Melissa Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).


Art historian Charmaine Nelson suggests that Lewis would have encountered these archaeological sources in the Vatican’s collection of Egyptian art. Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 176.


William J. Clark, Jr., Great American Sculpture (Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1878), 141, quoted in Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire, 200.


Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire, 202; Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone, 176–8.