Rutgers-Newark Names Athletics Field in Honor of Frederick Douglass
(Newark, NJ – July 18, 2018) – The Rutgers Board of Governors today approved a resolution naming the athletics field at Rutgers University–Newark in honor of revered 19th century civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass. The facility, used by Rutgers-Newark men’s and women’s Scarlet Raiders teams for NCAA Division III play and practice, as well as by numerous local community groups, will be known from now on as Frederick Douglass Field.
Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor proposed this new designation based on a recently revealed direct connection between Douglass and the site of the athletics field. Local researcher Todd Allen, of Chatham, New Jersey, and Rutgers-Newark graduate student Noelle Lorraine Williams, who independently have been studying Douglass’ activities in the region, have documented that Douglass delivered an address at the Plane Street Colored Church in Newark on April 17, 1849 at the invitation of local abolitionist leaders. That church, no longer in existence, stood squarely where the Rutgers-Newark athletics field borders University Avenue today. In Douglass’s time, when University Avenue was named Plane Street, the church was at number 132, midway between Warren Street and what was then a point on the Morris Canal at which canal boats ascended or descended 70 feet on an inclined plane, where Raymond Boulevard runs today.
Allen also has established that the church site had been owned by Theodore Frelinghuysen, the seventh President of Rutgers, who donated the lot to the group of African Americans seeking to establish the church and persuaded a group of prominent citizens to finance its building, which was dedicated in 1835.
Allen and Williams have documented that the church site was located in a broader community of African American families including churches, civic organizations, and a school. An additional nearby site of historical significance was 77 Warren Street, the residence of a family named King. Located around the corner from the church on a lot that also is now part of the Rutgers-Newark athletics field, the former King residence is believed to be the only documented Underground Railroad stop in the City of Newark.
“We are thrilled to be able to call these extraordinary connections to the attention of all who live in and visit Newark,” said Cantor. “Frederick Douglass intersected here with a longer history of social-justice organizing in Newark that both preceded him and followed him, up to the present day. Naming the athletics field for him would honor both a significant moment in time and its place in a longer progressive history that continues to drive our sense of mission at Rutgers University–Newark.”
Allen is delighted that his research has contributed to this opportunity to call out Newark’s distinguished history so vividly. "I am very pleased with the Board of Governors vote today,” he said. “From this day forward Frederick Douglass will forever be associated with Rutgers University-Newark and with the great City of Newark and we can all be proud."
In the course of his research, Allen has collaborated with Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., who is Frederick Douglass’s great-great-great grandson and has expressed strong support for naming the athletics field for his ancestor, especially to do so in a year when the 200th anniversary of Douglass’ birth in February 1818 is being celebrated. “On behalf of the family of Frederick Douglass, I am delighted that Rutgers-Newark is enthusiastic about recognizing and lifting up the university’s connection to my great-great-great grandfather,” Morris said. “I look forward to continuing our collaboration and working with Chancellor Cantor, her team, and Newark community members as efforts to celebrate this connection and its renewed relevance deepen and broaden.”
Morris has participated in discussions with a team of Rutgers-Newark historians and administrators who developed the proposal to name the field and now are considering additional, ongoing educational means and media through which to highlight Douglass’ presence in Newark, as well as his extraordinary impact on democratic thought and social action. Their work builds upon the Scarlet and Black Project, a concerted effort to explore and increase awareness of the African-American and Native American experience at Rutgers.
To celebrate the significance of Frederick Douglass’ contributions as a visionary thinker on social issues from abolitionism to women’s rights, and to examine the legacy of his thought in social movements of today in Newark, across the nation, and around the world, the Rutgers-Newark team has begun to conceive a major event anticipated to take place in April 2019, which will be the 170th anniversary of Douglass’ speech at the site of the field that now bears his name.
For now, new signage is being prepared to identify Frederick Douglass Field, marking the spot where one of history’s greatest democratic thinkers, social activists, and eloquent orators addressed and inspired the people of Newark.