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The Center was named after Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), a one-time runaway slave who became the Civil War era's best known African-American author, orator and civil rights activist. Like its namesake, the center seeks to inspire young people to use education and leadership to transcend difficult circumstances. It's a profound message and one that many have heeded. Numerous alumni have continued on to professional careers and remain active in community organizations.

The Center is located in the Douglass Houses and near Park West Village, housing projects that were created in the late 1950s and early 1960s as part of an urban renewal project designed by Robert Moses.

To create the space for Douglass Houses and Park West Village, a vibrant neighborhood was razed in order to accommodate a new one. The “old neighborhood” housed many of New York City’s pioneer medical institutions, including the Pasteur Institute, the New York Cancer Hospital and the Women’s Hospital. Many of the churches and synagogues in the area offered protection to escaped slaves and immigrant groups.