Solving the Mystery of the Missing Portrait

by Amber Papas

Solving the Mystery of the Missing Portrait
Lisa Struckmeyer

It’s unusual for one’s curiosity to lead to a great discovery, but that was exactly what happened to George Mason University history alumna Lisa Struckmeyer. In 2013-14, Struckmeyer worked as a park ranger at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. It was here that she first encountered Sarah J. Eddy’s portrait of Frederick Douglass. The portrait, dated 1883, is a full-length portrait of Douglass holding a baton, which symbolically represents his authority while he served as the first African American U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia.

Struckmeyer felt “privileged to stand in front of the painting” every day. In between tours one day, she saw a photograph of sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois standing in front of an identical painting—but in his New York apartment—and realized she needed answers. Struckmeyer immediately got “very excited and thought, ‘Wow, what story must there be for this painting to have traveled from Du Bois’ apartment to here?’”

Struckmeyer, who received her B.A. in History and is currently working on both a master’s degree in anthropology and a graduate certificate in Digital Public Humanities at Mason, began her research by reading letters in order to uncover “the beginning of this painting.” What she found were letters between the artist, Sarah J. Eddy, and Douglass showing that they had “a longstanding friendship.” She also began to look into other people who corresponded with Douglass and Eddy. Struckmeyer found that Susan B. Anthony mentioned seeing the portrait in Rhode Island at the Academy of Science, while sitting for her own portrait by Eddy.

While most people would have assumed the painting in Du Bois’ home had not yet been given to Douglass, Struckmeyer began to dig deeper, following the path of where the portrait had gone after Douglass’ death in 1903. Initially, his widow turned the home into a museum to preserve his legacy and everything he owned. In 1962, the Douglass home was established as a unit of the National Park System, and by 1964 the deed was officially transferred to the United States. All of these facts still did not explain how Du Bois ended up with the painting in his apartment.

After months of research, through most of Douglass' papers and Du Bois' correspondence, Struckmeyer found that, in December of 1914, Du Bois wrote to the artist, asking for the painting so it could be hung in the office of the NAACP’s monthly magazine, the Crisis, where Du Bois served as editor. By March 1915, Du Bois announced the arrival of Eddy’s gift. In 1959, before traveling to Ghana for what would be his final trip, Du Bois gifted the painting to Fisk University. Fisk proudly received the portrait and placed it in the new men’s dormitory named Du Bois Hall.

Cut to current day. Struckmeyer couldn’t find anyone at Fisk to produce a record of the painting in the university collection. She thought to find someone who had seen the portrait while it hung at the university.

“The most incredible part of my journey was getting to interview Congressman John Lewis. He graciously gave me his eyewitness account of the painting hanging in Fisk at the same time the National Park Service had ours in D.C.,” she says.

With this interview from a highly reputable source, her mystery was solved: There were two nearly identical paintings. Struckmeyer found out that the artist had also painted two nearly identical portraits of Susan B. Anthony.

At this time, no one at Fisk is quite sure where the gifted portrait of Frederick Douglass is; however, the university has agreed to join the search and Struckmeyer couldn’t be happier. She was recently interviewed about her research for an article in USA Today and said all she hopes is to see “the portrait eventually returned to Fisk and to stand in front of that one too!”

Struckmeyer, who is currently working as an historic interpreter for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division, might see this mystery resolved yet.