I was writing an article on how to cancel plans a few weeks ago in which I was trying to name a common campus activity that UR students do, and came up with breakfast at Douglass Dining Hall — affectionately referred to as “Dougie Breakfast.” When the article was in the editing process, there was a suggestion that changed the spelling to “Douggie Breakfast.” While sometimes colloquially referred to as “Douggie,” Douglass Commons and its resident dining hall, both in reference to the historical figure Frederick Douglass, do not have two g’s. Questions arise on whether it can be construed as disrespectful to change the spelling of his name (Dougie to Douggie), or whether changing his name at all (Douglass to Dougie) is culturally appropriate.
As an experiment, I first asked UR students whether they had heard of Dougie Breakfast, and, among all students, how they spell it. Surveying a sample of 18 students at Douglass Dining Hall who were eating breakfast, I initially found that six had never heard of the term. Of all students, 10 spelled it “Dougie.” Seven spelled it “Douggie.” One person indicated that they would spell it “Duggy.”
“I think that Dougie Breakfast comes from the dance move ‘Dougie.’ You know, from that song ‘Teach Me How to Dougie.’ It’s a song that everyone from our generation knows, so we took the word Douglass and turned it into Dougie. I don’t think it’s anything more complicated than that. I use the single ‘g’ just because that’s what the song says,” said senior Bethany Sielski, who was at Douglass Hall for its namesake breakfast. By popular opinion, Dougie seems to win as the correct spelling.
The suggested edit of Dougie to Douggie in my article reminded me of an incident at the National McNair Conference I attended last year. At the conference, which was at the University of Maryland College Park, there was an art exhibit celebrating the life of Maryland native Frederick Douglass, with placards giving him the name “Frederick Douglas.” The Senior Advisor for the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Rochester, George McCormick, noticed this misspelling and advocated for its immediate correction.
“The reason why ‘Douglass’ (two ss’s) is important to get right in the spelling of Frederick Douglass’s name is because that’s the name he gave himself when he became a free man,” McCormick, who teaches about Frederick Douglass’ life and works in his “Intensive Academic Writing Seminar” class, said. “It was common for escaped slaves, for reasons both practical and spiritual, to rename themselves when they became free. […] Douglass’s slave name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. When he liberated himself, he re-named himself, Frederick Douglass. He took the surname ‘Douglas’ from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake.’ He liked the sound and strength of the name, but wanting to distinguish himself, he added a second ‘s’ to it. He simply liked how exotic it looked (and indeed, you don’t find ‘Douglass’ as a name anywhere in Scotland). In a way he was branding himself, creating a name and kind of a logo.”
McCormick argues that, intentional or not, misspelling Douglass’ name takes away from his identity. The McNair Conference was not the first time that Frederick Douglass’ name was misspelled. The New York state capitol, for instance, only recently corrected the spelling “Douglas” on their nearly 120-year-old statue of Frederick Douglass. Albany residents had been complaining of this misspelling for years, with only persistent pressure on the matter eventually leading to change.
McCormick’s opinion is not unanimously agreed upon by some who are familiar with Frederick Douglass. Epiphany Adams, a member of the Douglass Leadership House, did not think that the abbreviation of Douglass to a variation of “Dougie” was of particular concern:
“Generally, there [are] bigger things to be concerned about. ‘Dougie’ vs ‘Douggie’ is just a nickname that I highly doubt [Frederick Douglass] would care about.”
She also disagreed with the implications of misspelling Frederick Douglass’ name:
“It’s an honest misspelling of Douglass. My family’s name is Douglas, not Douglass, so people are always confused. It doesn’t take away from his identity. It would if it was spelled crazy.”
The simple omission of an ‘s,’ according to Adams, is not enough to erase the identity or legacy of Frederick Douglass. Most who misspell his name with one ‘s’ likely do so accidentally, and can easily be corrected to the proper spelling if need be.
The city of Rochester, and the University, in particular, owe much of their history to Frederick Douglass. Rochester’s airport is named after Frederick Douglass, meaning that one of the first things seen by those who visit the city is his name. From Douglass Commons to the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies, our campus has also chosen to honor Douglass for his work. Douglass was an abolitionist who moved to Rochester to start his anti-slavery publication, “The North Star,” and used his publication building as a stop for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. A renowned orator, Douglass was also largely responsible for convincing Abraham Lincoln to allow slaves into the Union Army during the American Civil War and making the war’s goal to abolish slavery, rather than just to preserve the United States. Douglass was also active in the women’s suffrage movement, being close friends with Susan B. Anthony and being one of the few men at the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls.
Professor Jeffrey Tucker, Undergraduate Director of the Department of English and faculty member of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies, is also interested in the legacy of Frederick Douglass and the importance of spelling his name correctly.
“Any writer should be vigilant in making sure they’re spelling […] any word or any name correctly […] Certainly, honest mistakes can occur, but it’s important to minimize those mistakes. Especially if you’re a student here at the University […] where Frederick Douglass is named for many buildings and the Institute for African and African American Studies.”
Tucker, regarding the abbreviation of Douglass Commons, had this to say:
“As to how to spell the term that students apply to Douglass Commons, I don’t know that it matters in the same way, because the term is being applied to a building or space and not to the historical figure.”
As these abbreviations apply to a building that shares the name Douglass, rather than people abbreviating the historical figure himself, Tucker asserted that the abbreviated spelling of “Dougie”/“Douggie”/“Duggy” is up to the writer’s interpretation:
“‘Dougie’ could conceivably be pronounced in a manner different than intended — — ‘doo-zhee’ — so perhaps the double ‘g’ is best. As for me, I refer to the building as ‘Douglass.’ […] When students say it like that, it’s not disrespectful because it’s a way of expressing […] familiarity with the space on campus.”
As Tucker previously indicated, writers have a unique responsibility to correctly convey information. This can include making writing clear to those who have not seen a term before. While Tucker believes that the abbreviation Dougie is fine for students who are referring to the location, he does not share the same opinion about abbreviating the historical figure Frederick Douglass:
“If it was used in reference to the historical figure, that would be problematic. That would be disrespectful. […] There’s a saying in African American Vernacular: “Being called out of your name.” That basically speaks to how being called something other than the name by which you identify is an act of disrespect.”
Dougie is currently used as a show of familiarity with a beloved space on campus, but this sense of familiarity should not be shown with Frederick Douglass, given that this is not a term he would have given himself and he was particularly interested in his name being said correctly. Just as Douglass chose his name from a Scottish poem and mainly cared about his name being unique from his slave name, renaming oneself from a name tied to slavery is a common trend among African American figures. Mohammed Ali was born Cassius Clay and changed his name to reflect his conversion to Islam. Tucker recollected a famous match between Ali and Ernie Terrell in which Terrell refers to Ali as “Cassius Clay” at the start, which prompts Ali to taunt “What’s my name?” upon winning.
Professor Tucker indicated that Rochester, and UR, in particular, has a unique responsibility to uphold Frederick Douglass’ legacy. Misspelling his name could serve to disrespect this legacy:
“The airport here in Rochester is named after Frederick Douglass now […] and it’s important to get that name spelled right because you have people literally from all over the country and all over the world coming through the airport, and if they see the name misspelled, they might think: ‘Oh, that’s the way you spell it,’ or they might think ‘These people in Rochester don’t know how to spell his name!’”
While numerous statues of Douglass exist, alongside his name being on several public spaces, Tucker indicates that simply naming things after people like Douglass is not enough to honor his legacy.
“A former colleague of mine once said that he thinks every student at [UR] needs to read Douglass’ 1845 Narrative. I agree, I think it’s important to know Douglass’ story.”
Several students on campus will see Douglass’ name and, particularly if they are not from the US, not know who he was. Tucker believes that knowing of his impact on American society would be beneficial. Frederick Douglass fought for economic and social justice for African Americans and women. Tucker indicates that the best way to honor Douglass’ legacy might be to continue the fight he helped start.
“There’s a poem by Robert Hayden titled ‘Frederick Douglass.’ It basically says […] the best way to honor Douglass is to work towards freedom and justice […] social justice, economic justice, freedom. There’s a lot of loose talk about freedom today […] but I think Douglass is someone who continues to be relevant to the 21st century.”
Frederick Douglass was an important figure for his time, and the ideals he fought for are the same that many in the United States still fight for today. The Rochester community, in particular, owes much to Douglass regardless of race. As there is no standardized spelling, with the closest authority being the title of a 2010 hip-hop Single, numerous spellings of “Dougie” exist. Abbreviating Douglass Hall’s name might not be considered disrespectful, as it is for a space that students are familiar with. Abbreviating his name, or misspelling his name for that matter, denies the identity he gave himself upon escaping slavery.