It's a measure of the way American history used to be taught that I was well into middle age before I ever heard of Frederick Douglass. He ought to be someone every American schoolchild gets to know well. But when I was a kid, there was no such thing as Black History Month, and my textbooks' chapters on pre-Civil War America drummed into my mind the names of presidents of little merit, like James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce. They didn't mention Douglass.
I first encountered Douglass in 2007, when I was assigned to teach a 9th grade English honors class at Central High School in Capitol Heights, MD. I wanted some books by African American writers for my students. At the back of the school's book storage room I found a few dozen paperback copies of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. We read it.
It proved to be an astounding narrative. Douglass was born a slave in 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Despite never having a chance to go to school, he largely taught himself, in secret, to read and write. As a young man, he escaped to the north. Within a few years he became an abolitionist lecturer, then a writer and publisher, and finally the acknowledged leader of African Americans in the United States until his death in 1895.
(Yes, I have asked myself why, if learning to read and write doesn't require a school, I, in my years as a high school teacher, had such a hard time instilling the rules of grammar. I suspect the answer is that the self-taught Douglass had a better teacher than the kids in my classes.)
Be that as it may, I recently read David Blight's new and very comprehensive Douglass biography. It reminded me that Douglass was born and lived the last years of his life very close to my home. I decided to visit some of the sites associated with Douglass and see if I could photograph them.
As Blight informed me, Douglass's first home no longer exists. It was a slave cabin on a plantation in Talbot County and it long ago vanished. But I Googled "Frederick Douglass birthplace," thinking I might see the spot on the ground where the cabin was. To my pleasant surprise, I saw on the web that Talbot County had recently erected a Douglass statue on the lawn of the county courthouse in Easton. Moreover, there is now a driving tour of places associated with Douglass in Talbot County, beginning with his earliest years. As I drove out over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and onto Maryland's Eastern Shore region, I wondered how Douglass would feel if he could somehow come back and see his likeness in the very place where he was once jailed after the failure of his first escape attempt.
As it turned out, I suspect he would feel less than completely honored, because Talbot County put his statue on the courthouse lawn next to a statue memorializing the county's Confederate soldiers. (In the picture at the top of this post, that's Johnny Reb, wrapped in the Stars and Bars, in the background behind Douglass. A different view of Confederate memorial is above left.) Maybe the locals thought of this juxtaposition as a symbol of reconciliation. But Douglass had no tolerance for the notion of the Confederacy as a cause worth memorializing. He knew that Confederate troops had fought to keep black people enslaved. He knew that even after the North defeated the South on the battlefield, there would be a residue of "sullen hatred toward the National Government." And I suspect he would have seen that Confederate memorial, correctly, as a symbol of that undying hatred.
The Douglass driving tour turned out to be, putting it charitably, embryonic. The actual birthplace, as best it can be determined, evidently lies on private property. There isn't so much as a sign by the road to point to where it was. The driving tour directed me to a boat ramp on the banks of the Tuckahoe River, which turned out to be a quarter of a mile or so downstream from where Douglass was born. A woman was fishing from a pier.
"Are you taking my picture?" she asked as I snapped a couple of shots of the river.
"No," I said. "I'm trying to get a picture of Frederick Douglass's birthplace. Have you heard of him?"
"Heard the name," she shrugged, and went back to her fishing.
Douglass' memory is more revered at his last home, a hilltop mansion called Cedar Hill in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood. Cedar Hill is a national historic site, maintained by the U.S. Park Service. Seeing it, one appreciates that Douglass did well by doing good. It's an imposing house with a view out to the U.S. Capitol in the west. Douglass held several well-paying federal jobs after the Civil War, and he earned lecture fees and book royalties. When he died, the house suggests, he had become comfortably well off.
Anacostia did not fare so well as the city of Washington spread out around Cedar Hill. The neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city not only by the Anacostia River but by a freeway. It became the poorest section of Washington, plagued by inferior housing, crime, and troubled schools. I don't know what Douglass would have made of this. In his lifetime, he used to say that all black people needed was their freedom, the right to vote, and to be left alone by white supremacists. Had he lived another hundred or so years, I suspect he would have come to the view that overcoming the legacy of slavery would be more complicated than that.
But I have little doubt that he wouldn't be happy to see what I saw in the streets around Cedar Hill. There's a new Chase Bank branch down the street. Busboys and Poets, a local restaurant chain that specializes in opening outposts in "transitioning" neighborhoods, just opened one around the corner from Douglass on Martin Luther King Avenue, SE. On a Saturday morning, I saw a small group of white people, walking around the neighborhood, eyeing the real estate.
Directly across the street from Cedar Hill, I saw an Hispanic carpenter working on a freshly painted white row house. A realtor's sign already had been posted in the small front yard. "Coming Soon," it promised. The carpenter told me that he'd bought the house himself and was renovating it to flip it.
These were signs of gentrification, as surely as the first daffodils are signs of spring. Douglass, I suspect, would not be happy to see it in his old neighborhood. He'd have nothing in principle against good restaurants, or access to financial services, or renovated housing. But I doubt he'd be happy to know that these changes would happen as black residents were steadily priced out.
Donald Trump, in February 2017, famously said that, "Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice." Trump's choice of verb tenses suggested that he wasn't aware Douglass had died. But it raised the question: What would Douglass think if he were indeed alive?
After visiting Talbot County and Cedar Hill, I suspect I know. Frederick Douglass would be angry.