CAREFULLY preserved in an unassuming handmade chest at the University of Rochester in upstate New York is a rare treasure, lovingly gifted from father to son. The gem is a book; pearls of polished poetry strung together by one of Scotland’s literary royals, Robert Burns.

The owner of the book gained a wealth of inspiration from it. It was the first book he purchased after escaping slavery. He was none other than the abolitionist leader and social reformer Frederick Douglass, who passed on the treasure to his son, Lewis, in 1867.

From the moment he turned its pages, Frederick Douglass cultivated not only an admiration for Burns, but for the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and a life-long affection for Scotland and the Scottish people.

Douglass at his desk at 33 Gilmore Street in Edinburgh composing persuasive letters and formidable lectures as an anti-slavery activist was only eight years removed from escaping his own trauma of slavery in Maryland in 1838. He must have pondered this as he walked Princes Street or surveyed the city from Calton Hill.

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Douglas was in the remarkable position of advocating internationally for human liberty so soon after his own bondage. This rapid rise to prominence was a testament to his talents, but also to the shifting moral consciousness of the throngs of people he addressed.

He once wrote of Edinburgh: “I enjoy everything here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue – no distinction here. I have found myself in the society of the…first people of this city and no one seemed alarmed by my presence.”

Douglass had initially come to Scotland as part of a tour to Britain and Ireland between 1845 and 1847 and again in 1859 and 1860. His specific engagement with Scotland was to speak out against the Free Church of Scotland which had financed itself through funds that came from slaveholders in the United States.

He spoke widely across Scotland, filling up chapels and assembly halls beyond capacity. He first arrived in Glasgow in 1846. Many of his speeches and public appearance in Glasgow were delivered at City Halls in Candleriggs. Audiences and communities responded to his Send Back The Money campaign with fervent support.

The story of Douglass in Scotland links to a person he called, "the single most important influence on his life." That person’s name was Dr James McCune Smith. A fellow American and former slave, Smith was an extraordinary figure and pioneer.

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He had been blocked from further education in the United States because he was an African-American. He turned to Scotland and the University of Glasgow which made the bold decision to admit him in the early 1830s. Smith went onto to earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and his medical doctorate from the University of Glasgow. He was the first African-American to receive a medical degree, and it was from a Scottish university.

There is no question that as Douglass embraced Scotland, he was influenced by his close friend’s example. To their great credit, the University of Glasgow has named a new £90 million facility the James McCune Smith Learning Hub.

Douglass’ first visit to Scotland ended with a moving stop in Hawick in the Borders. A reporter wrote that Douglass “spoke for nearly two hours, in a calm, cool, dignified, and impressive manner, that shewed him to be qualified above most men to command the attention of an audience.” He was enthusiastically praised by the spectators, and then with fond farewells departed for northern England. The first Scottish tour of Douglass was monumental in terms of the scale of people he educated, touched and motivated.

The spirit of Douglass’ legacy is still intact, but as with all historical figures who advocated for progressive social change, their tones and path prints can fade unless we download their voices, trace their footsteps, and disinter their ideas from the clutch of distant history.

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Douglass would have been inspired by today’s Black Lives Matter movement, in fact, he was a courageous catalyst of it. In Scotland, he would have eagerly supported the Black Lives Matter Scottish Mural Trail developed by Wezi Mhura and artists from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, living in Scotland.

The trail is a reminder that the work of Douglass for global unity and racial equality is still an unfolding journey around the world. It is a winding road stridden by valiant feet fractured by the trying passage to greater equality. Wherever we are in the world, humanity is duty bound to enter the trail, for each to do our part in marching forward for racial justice and harmony.

Ian Houston has spent his career in Washington, DC as an advocate for diplomacy, trade, global poverty alleviation, intercultural dialogue, and as a non-profit leader. He serves as President of the Scottish Business Network (SBN) in the US and SBN Ambassador in Washington, DC. He serves on the board of the Robert Burns Ellisland Museum and Farm in Auldgirth and is the author of Under Candle Bright. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of SBN or Ellisland.