On the Trail of Frederick Douglass in Baltimore
Editor's Note: On Oct. 1, 2007 City Paper learned that Frederick Douglass IV, a subject of this story, is not the great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, as he claims. Read more here.
"It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from that plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day . . . been confined in the galling chains of slavery. Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity."
--Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845
In late March 1826, the sloop Sally Lloyd sailed up the Patapsco River from the Chesapeake Bay, landed at Smith's Wharf in the Baltimore harbor, and unloaded a flock of sheep. Along with the animals came a skinny 8-year-old, a slave from Talbot County on the Eastern Shore. The sheep were headed for a nearby slaughterhouse; the boy was destined to become the greatest African-American of the 19th century, and arguably the greatest American ever to rise from the streets of Baltimore. Fred Bailey, the slave, fled Baltimore in 1838 to become Frederick Douglass, the famed black editor, orator, and activist.
One would think the history-conscious, tourism-hungry, majority-black city of Baltimore could make much of this story, a striking example of local-boy-makes-good. But in the conventional, official ways cities celebrate their sons and daughters, Baltimore remains strangely muted on the subject of Frederick Douglass. Besides the West Baltimore high school named for him--itself the alma mater of many famed Baltimoreans--and a couple of historic plaques, there are few visible commemorations. None of the scenes or sites of his youth in Fells Point are marked--a fact pointed out 20 years ago, and described as "inexcusable neglect," by Douglass biographer Dickson Preston. The city's lone statue of Douglass stands out of sight of the general public, on the grounds of Morgan State University. By somewhat bizarre contrast, Baltimore boasts no fewer than three well-placed monuments to Christopher Columbus (see Charmed Life).
Entrepreneurial Baltimoreans have found their own ways to celebrate Douglass' legacy. A half-dozen or so local programs relating in whole or part to Douglass were scattered through February's packed schedule of local Black History Month events. There were tours of Fells Point and the Eastern Shore, and "living history" portrayals of black heroes by actors, among them Frederick Douglass IV, great-great-grandson of the great abolitionist. Most of these programs were organized by private businesses and nonprofits.
Official Baltimore's tepid embrace of Douglass should be no surprise considering the city's embarrassing legacy as a center of the slave trade. "In my personal encounters over the years, I've met people of European ancestry and African ancestry who say, 'Why rehash all this stuff? It's too painful,' " says Ralph Clayton, an amateur historian who has spent more than 20 years researching slavery here. "Douglass is part of that."
Frederick Douglass IV, who has been portraying his ancestor for the last three years, often hears the same complaint. "Some people say, 'Why don't you leave the slavery part alone?' "--particularly in Baltimore, he says. "I find the audiences don't want to deal with the slavery aspects. They want to deal with the end products [of Douglass' life]--to talk about voting rights, but not about the Fourth of July speech" of 1857, in which Douglass harshly attacked the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom and democracy in a nation that still allowed slavery.
Douglass IV ascribes Baltimore's selective memory to "a kind of schizophrenia" that has afflicted the city since well before the Civil War, which split Marylanders' loyalties between North and South. Slavery was abolished here 136 years ago, but Jim Crow laws persisted into the 1960s, and the issues that animated his forebear still fester.
Which perhaps points up another reason why Baltimore, at least its commercial and civic establishment, can't bear to look Douglass in the eye: He is still threatening. His frowning portraits seem to indict white viewers, and his best-known quotations are confrontational, even accusatory: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." . . . "Agitate, agitate, agitate!" . . . "What, to the slave, is your Fourth of July?" Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., to whom he is sometimes compared as an orator, Douglass was no advocate of nonviolence. His great cause during the Civil War years was winning, for blacks, the right to serve as Union soldiers.
On the other hand, Douglass, like King, may suffer from having been reduced to an icon--a face so often flashed before us that we are inoculated against his revolutionary persona. But icon status has never dulled Baltimore's adulation of the odd trinity of H.L. Mencken, Edgar Allan Poe, and Babe Ruth. Those white images are endlessly celebrated, despite that fact that Ruth and Poe, like Douglass, spent relatively little of their lives here and largely achieved greatness elsewhere.
Despite harsh memories and a long exile, though, Douglass always considered himself a Marylander and regarded Baltimore as his hometown. In three separate autobiographies, he cited the dramatic events of his youth in Fells Point as crucial in forming his character and defining his life's mission. Days after Maryland abolished slavery, he returned to Fells Point to celebrate; after the Civil War, he contemplated a triumphal move back to Baltimore, but was dissuaded by friends who warned that he might be assassinated. Although he never again lived in Baltimore, he came back repeatedly over the next 30 years--to speak, to invest, and to revisit the scenes of his tumultuous youth.
In terms of tracing Douglass' path, Baltimore's willful civic amnesia is compounded by the fact that the city has been radically reshaped, repaved, and rebuilt over the last 175 years. Few if any of the places where Douglass actually lived and worked survive. Still, it's possible to follow his footsteps and, with a little imagination, catch glimpses of the world in which he lived.
Smith's Pier, where the 8-year-old Fred Bailey debarked from the Sally Lloyd, stood roughly where the National Aquarium is today. The scene of the harbor, bristling with tall masts, must have astounded the rural boy. His first task in Baltimore was to help drive his shipmates, the sheep, to a slaughterhouse located on "Louden Slater's Hill," a location not shown on contemporary maps.
Led by his cousin Tom, a Sally Lloyd deckhand, young Fred probably walked east on Pratt Street and zigzagged through the Fells Point area to reach the house of his new master, Hugh Auld, at the corner of Aliceanna Street and Happy Alley (now Durham Street). Auld worked at James Beacham's shipyard two blocks away at Lancaster and Wolfe streets, a site now occupied by a National Aquarium warehouse. At Aliceanna Street, Douglass wrote in his 1845 Narrative, he was greeted by "what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld."
Fred had been sent to Fells Point on extended loan from his Eastern Shore master, Thomas Auld, Hugh Auld's brother and a small-time ship owner turned shopkeeper. Fred's first job was making sure Hugh Auld's 4-year-old son, Tommy, stayed out of Aliceanna Street, which teemed with heavy freight wagons serving the port.
According to Preston, author of Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years, a historical plaque was designed for the site of the Aulds' house but never put in place because it contained errors about Douglass' age and birthday. A nondescript commercial building stands there today, and most of the houses on the block were built later in the 19th century. Durham Street, however, is lined with tiny alley houses that provide a hint of what the Auld house might have looked like.
"I . . . have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh. . . . In the deep still darkness of midnight I have often been aroused by the dead heavy footsteps, and the hideous cries of the chained gangs that passed our doors."--Frederick Douglass, Rochester, N.Y., 1852
In 1827, Hugh Auld and a partner, Edward Harrison, opened their own shipbuilding business on the so-called "hook" that formed the western end of Fells Point. The Auld household, meanwhile, moved to nearby Philpot Street, which ran alongside the docks and shipyards, essentially an extension of Thames Street. Auld's enterprise was to prove short-lived, but Fred Bailey's six years on Philpot Street were key to the rest of his life. On the one hand, he experienced something like social equality with white boys his own age; on the other, he bore witness to all the horrors and contradictions of slavery.
Philpot was part of what historian Clayton calls "Baltimore's trail of tears," the regular route between the slave markets and the moorings of slave ships off Fells Point. Most of the markets were located close to the Inner Harbor or further west, near the city's rail terminals. From Pratt Street, the most direct route to the Fells Point docks was by way of West Falls Avenue, a street that followed the west bank of the Jones Falls, down a long pier that extended beyond present day Pier 6. The pier ended at a drawbridge that crossed the Jones Falls channel to meet Block Street, one block north of Philpot.
The drawbridge is long gone, but from the early 19th century to the early 20th it was a much-trafficked shortcut. When raised, the bridge admitted ships to a sheltered basin at the foot of Jones Falls, called the "city dock." Today the name applies to a much-reduced dock area with a narrow canal that runs at a right angle to Caroline Street. The rest of the dock area was filled in many years ago.
While on Philpot Street, young Fred guilelessly asked Sophia Auld to teach him to read. "She consented," Douglass wrote, "and soon taught me the alphabet and to read words of three or four letters." The lessons got no further; they were abruptly ended when Mrs. Auld told her husband about them. Mr. Auld's angry reaction, as recalled by Douglass in his Narrative, is justly famous: "If you give a nigger an inch he will take an ell [an archaic unit of measurement, about 45 inches]. . . . Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave. . . . If you teach him how to read, he'll be wanting to write, and this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself."
Fred was 11 when Hugh Auld drafted him to work at the shipyard--doing errands, minding the fire, and "beating and spinning oakum," the recycled rope fiber that was used in ship-caulking. On the job, the ever-observant child noticed how ship carpenters marked timbers according to where they would go in the frame of the vessel--"L" for larboard, "S" for starboard, "F" for forward, and so on. He began to patch this information together with what he remembered from Sophia Auld's lessons.
When not working, Fred hung out with other neighborhood boys, most of whom were white. They joked, played, and fought with "town boys" who ventured across the drawbridge from central Baltimore. Most importantly, they helped Fred learn to read, sometimes in exchange for hunks of bread the slave filched from the Aulds' pantry. Around the same time, Fred found a stash of Tommy Auld's old schoolbooks, which he began to study whenever he was left alone in the house.
Fred's intellectual breakthrough came when he discovered a book called The Columbian Orator, a collection of patriotic speeches that his white friends used at school. With money he'd earned polishing boots around Fells Point, he bought a copy from Knight's bookstore on Thames Street and began to read essays and speeches on such themes as citizenship and liberty.
In contrast to the book's idealism, Fred witnessed the full range of master-slave relationships on Fells Point's streets and docks. "A city slave," he later wrote, "is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. . . . There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. . . . Few [Baltimore slaveholders] are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master." He noted as "painful exceptions" two slaves, Mary and Henrietta, belonging a household across Philpot Street. Mary was routinely beaten with a cowhide whip, Douglass wrote, until her shoulders were "literally cut to pieces."
The "shame" Douglass mentioned was on the rise in the 1820s and '30s, as Maryland's economy grew less dependent on slavery and abolitionist Quakers gained influence among the city's elite. These changes had contradictory effects: Many whites set their slaves free, swelling the ranks of the free black population, but many others decided to sell their slaves, turning Baltimore into a slave-export center.
For the sake of public relations, slavers employed a variety of stratagems to keep their business out of sight. Hope Slatter, for many years the biggest slave dealer in town, routinely loaded his captives on to horse-drawn omnibuses for the run to Fells Point. Based on his readings of slavers' advertisements, Clayton thinks there might have been a tunnel somewhere on the Light Street side of the Inner Harbor, expressly for the purpose of loading slaves. Douglass' memory of being wakened by the groans of slaves points to another common practice: driving the slaves under cover of night.
Today, to see where the adolescent Fred Bailey lived, one must peer through a chain-link fence across a vacant peninsula. Half of Philpot Street disappeared around 1846, when Isaac Tyson Jr. built a chromium plant on the end of the Fells Point "hook." Chromium processing continued on the site until the 1980s under the aegis of Allied Chemical Corp. The huge Allied plant, along with the stubby remains of Philpot Street, has since been demolished and replaced with a vast gravelly pavement.
While still on Philpot Street, Fred began to attend the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a small congregation on Strawberry Alley (now called Dallas Street), half a block south of Wilkes Street (the present-day Eastern Avenue). Nearly all the church's members were free blacks, but Fred mingled easily with the crowd and soon befriended an elderly lay preacher named Charles Lawson, who lived on Happy Alley. Lawson, a wagon driver, took Fred on as a spiritual protégé; the two read the Bible together. True to form, Hugh Auld tried to put a stop to Fred's association with Lawson, but the increasingly independent slave kept up his visits, and his reading.
In 1833, Thomas and Hugh Auld had a falling out. Hugh Auld had refused to take in another of his brother's surplus slaves, so Thomas, to spite his brother, demanded that Fred be sent back to Talbot County to work as a field hand. Having tasted at least a semblance of equality and freedom, Fred burned with outrage against the degradation of plantation slavery. After Fred and a young white man started a "Sabbath school" to teach adult slaves to read Scripture, Thomas Auld decided to rent the troublesome youth to a reputed "nigger-breaker," a tenant farmer named Edward Covey. After a series of humiliations and beatings, Fred eventually had a physical showdown with Covey, battling him mano a mano for two hours until Covey backed off. The lease ended on Christmas 1834, and Fred was returned to Thomas Auld. Sixteen months later, Fred and four other slaves planned to escape in a canoe, but their plot was discovered. Fred was sure his escape attempt would result in his being "sold south," but instead his master shipped him back to Baltimore, "the very place of all others, short of a free state, where I most desired to live." He had left as a moody adolescent; he returned, in 1836, an ambitious young man.
During Fred's absence, according to biographer Preston, the Baltimore Aulds moved to "Fells Street," which Preston identifies with the section of Thames Street between Bond and Caroline. Old maps tell a contradictory story: While the western end of Thames was indeed called "Fells Street" at the beginning of the 19th century, by the 1820s the name was given to the present-day Fell Street. Douglass himself mentions Fell (not Fells) Street as the Aulds' address. The 1837 edition of R.J. Matchett's Baltimore Director puts Auld at "Falls St. [south] of Thames," but given the slippery spelling habits of the era (and the fact that Thames came nowhere close to Falls Avenue, as Fallsway was then known), this almost certainly means Fell Street. This raises the slim possibility that the Auld house still exists. One of the oldest buildings in Fells Point, the house built in 1784 for shipbuilder John Steele, is located on Fell Street.
An 1836 map shows the Price and Waters wharf just east of Fell Street, south of Thames. This, in all likelihood, is the shipyard of Walter Price, where Hugh Auld went to work as foreman after his own business foundered. No longer in a position to employ Fred himself, Auld resorted to a common practice among Baltimore slave owners: He hired Fred out, with the provision that all the youth's wages would be turned over to him. In contrast to Fred's earlier experience in Fells Point, he found his new workplace, William Gardner's shipyard, a hostile environment. He was the only black employee; shortly before he was hired, all the yard's free black carpenters had been fired because white shipwrights refused to work with them.
In 1835, five trustees of the Strawberry Alley church published a letter denouncing William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society. The writers professed "heartfelt and unconquerable abhorrence of the atrocious attempts of mistaken, hot-headed zealots to plunge the country into anarchy and discord, and to deluge it with torrents of blood," and they urged postmasters to destroy the society's publication. Fred, although he might have appreciated the letter's florid rhetorical style, was disgusted by its content. He quit the church once and for all and joined the city's other black congregation, Sharp Street AME Church, which stood on Sharp between Pratt and Lombard streets, now the site of a Day's Inn. This church had been founded with the help of Quaker abolitionist Elisha Tyson. Accordingly, its preachers were more critical of slavery.
Though still a slave, the teenaged Fred increasingly tried to conduct himself as if were a free man. He boldly struck a deal with Auld: He would find his own work and lodging in Fells Point and pay Auld a guaranteed $3 per week, payable every Saturday. Meanwhile, he saved what money he could and planned his escape from bondage. Exactly where he lodged during this brief spell of relative freedom, Douglass never recorded.
Earlier, through the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, Fred had met two free blacks who were to be instrumental in his eventual liberation. One was Isaac Rolles, a carriage driver; the other was Anna Murray, who worked as a domestic for Peter Wells, a postman who, according to Matchett's Director, lived at 69 Caroline St. In the summer of 1838, Fred and Anna were engaged to be married.
One weekend in August 1838, Fred stayed at a religious camp meeting 12 miles from town, and didn't return to pay Auld until the following Monday. Furious, Auld broke their agreement, threatened to whip Fred, and insisted that he return to Fells Street. Afraid that Auld might be planning to sell him south, Fred set Sept. 3 as his deadline for going north.
The plan for the escape was shrewdly daring: Fred would board a northbound train disguised as one of the black sailors who frequented Baltimore's ports. Perhaps with Murray's help, he obtained a red shirt and black necktie. A broad-brimmed "tarpaulin hat" completed the nautical getup and helped obscure Fred's features. Finally, he borrowed (from a retired mariner named Stanley) a "seaman's protection," a document all black sailors carried. Douglass family tradition has it that Murray sold a feather bed to help pay for her fiancé's trip north.
Douglass went to a depot on the recently completed Baltimore and Port Deposit railroad line (later called the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore) and waited while regular passengers bought tickets. Shortly before boarding, Rolles arrived with Douglass' luggage. At the last minute, Fred hurried to the train with his bundled belongings and climbed aboard. When the conductor approached, checking documents and selling tickets to late boarders, Fred boldly displayed his seaman's protection and passed himself off as a free sailor. Later that day, after two close calls when acquaintances recognized him, he reached Philadelphia, then kept moving north by train and ferry. Murray left Baltimore a few days after Fred and joined him in New York, where they were married.
Precisely where Fred boarded the train, nobody knows for sure. In 1838, the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad had a small business office at Fleet and President streets, where President Street Station would be built a decade later. From there, the line ran east along Fleet Street, then angled down Boston Street through Canton before bending to the northeast and out of town. Shawn Cunningham, director of the Baltimore Civil War Museum (which now occupies President Street Station), theorizes that Fred probably boarded the train at its Canton stop, near Potomac Street.
Thus, with luck and cunning, Fred Bailey went on to become Frederick Douglass. (The new surname, adopted after his arrival in New Bedford, Mass., was suggested by an abolitionist friend, who borrowed it from Sir Walter Scott's novel The Lady of the Lake.) His great public works all came to fruition far from the banks of the Patapsco River. He traveled throughout the northern states and the British Isles, speaking, organizing, lobbying, and, during the Civil War, meeting twice with President Lincoln. Until the early 1870s, he lived in Rochester, N.Y., one of the final way stations of the Underground Railroad, where he published his own abolitionist periodicals, The North Star, Frederick Douglass' Paper, and Douglass' Monthly.
As soon as it was safe to do so, Douglass returned to the scenes of his former bondage. In November 1864, just two weeks after slavery was abolished by a newly adopted Maryland state constitution, Douglass came to the Strawberry Alley church in Fells Point to join in an emancipation celebration. Sounding a theme of fondness for his home state, he declared that "Maryland is now a glorious free state . . . the revolution is genuine, full and complete." He went on to argue that white Marylanders--some of whom were sprinkled throughout the audience --had nothing to fear from racial equality, and that Maryland should move quickly to give blacks the right to vote and hold office.
While in Fells Point, he also attempted to visit the widowed Sophia Auld, then living on Ann Street. Unfortunately, her youngest son, Benjamin, had recently read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Incensed by its harsh descriptions of his family, Benjamin Auld ordered Douglass off the property.
Nine months later, Douglass got a much warmer reception from a group of black Baltimoreans who had, with help from white philanthropists, established a center for the "intellectual advancement of the colored portion of the community" at the former Newton University building on Lexington Street near Calvert. On Sept. 29, 1865, it was christened the Douglass Institute, and a flattered Douglass spoke at its opening ceremonies. His speech touched on some of the subtler points of postwar race relations, including his disappointed hopes for racial integration and the idea that "[w]ealth, learning and ability . . . converts a Negro into a white man in this country. When prejudice cannot deny the black man's ability, it denies his race." The Douglass Institute survived until 1888, offering social events, academic classes, and a home for a black newspaper, The Communicator.
In May 1870, after President Grant signed the 15th Amendment giving male blacks the right to vote, Douglass went on a prolonged speaking tour to spread the news. One of his stops was Baltimore, where, as a homecoming hero, he addressed a crowd that filled Monument Square on Calvert Street. Following the speech, Baltimoreans acclaimed a series of resolutions, including one that recognized Douglass as "the foremost man of color of our times" and called on him to "return to us, and by the power of his magnificent manhood help us to a higher, broader, and nobler manhood." The following year he came to revisit the shipyards where he had worked and fought.
Douglass was visiting Washington, D.C., in June 1872 when he received news that his house in Rochester had burned to the ground, taking with it the archives of his newspapers and personal correspondence. As a national black leader, he was already a frequent visitor to the nation's capital; after the Rochester fire, he made Washington his home. Over the next 22 years, he traveled to Baltimore frequently.
On one such trip, in 1877, he made some disparaging remarks about the persistence of white bigotry in the nation's capital. At the time, he was serving in the ceremonial post of marshal of the District of Columbia. His remarks outraged white Washingtonians, who circulated a petition calling for Douglass to be fired.
But his blunt comments in Baltimore were an exception to the tone he generally took in his later years. By the late 1870s, Douglass had passed the apogee of his political influence; a contemporary writer in The New York Times flatly stated that "Douglass' role as a leader of his race is about played out." On occasion, inspired by younger people or outraged by crimes against blacks, Douglass could still roar, but the radical ex-slave had grown middle-aged, middle-class, and overly loyal to the Republican Party. Younger black leaders found plenty to criticize, as Douglass accepted tokenistic government appointments and made speeches admonishing poor blacks to raise themselves up as he had done.
In 1891, Douglass, 73 years old, visited Fells Point again, and found that the old Bethel AME Church on Strawberry Alley had been abandoned by the congregation. Having become, if not rich, at least a person of means, he bought the ramshackle church building, demolished it, and on its foundations built five new rowhouses, which he intended as housing for some of the neighborhood's shack-dwelling residents. But times were hard, and Fells Point's poor were perhaps too poor to rent; a few years after construction, two of the houses still stood vacant.
Strawberry Alley, now Dallas Street, is still a remarkably narrow byway, but the houses Douglass built, 516-524 Dallas St., all appear to be inhabited and well-kept. They are simple two-story structures with basement windows opening on ground level, identical in design (although one has been faced with Formstone) and almost devoid of ornament. The middle unit, 520, is distinguished by a block of marble set into midwall, bearing the name douglass place. Set flush with the bricks, this modest piece of signage probably dates back to the original construction. More recently, the Maryland Historical Society placed a plaque on the front of the southernmost unit with a picture of the elderly Douglass and a brief text about his Fells Point days.
After the disappointing real-estate venture, Douglass came up from D.C. at least one more time, to speak at commencement ceremonies for Baltimore's Colored High School in June 1894. Eight months later, he died in Washington. His last public act was to attend a women's-rights meeting.
By the time of his death, Douglass' years as a radical abolitionist were already ancient history, and black Americans were for the most part mired in the new slavery of sharecropping, piecework, low-wage industrial labor, and Jim Crow laws. Douglass' life work was being steadily dismantled, even as his name and image were being enshrined in the halls of African-American institutions.
Douglass' descendants scattered north and west, having inherited his work ethic but no great wealth. A century after Douglass barnstormed the Northeast states, his great-grandson Frederick Douglass III was working three jobs to maintain a middle-class standard of living for his family.
In 1965, Douglass IV enrolled at Morgan State University, and so became the first of the great man's heirs to settle in Baltimore. When this latter-day Douglass arrived at college, he found his legacy waiting in the form of a statue erected on the grounds in 1958. The bronze figure is by James Lewis, who also sculpted a bronze head of Douglass on display at the eponymous high school. The Morgan State statue stares across the campus, draped in wrinkle-free coat and trousers, a strangely static image considering whom it represents.
Now 53 and a resident of Reservoir Hill, Douglass IV serves as Morgan State's director of public relations. He's pleased when tourists hike across campus to look at the statue. Naturally, over the years, folks on the Douglass trail have sought him out as well, and appraised the resemblance between his broad, bearded face and that of the bronze. "People hear the name and they instantly have questions," he says. "I've never had a problem stopping and talking to people." Such conversations help him keep the promise he made to his dying mother to keep the Douglass story alive.
In 1997, Douglass IV decided to take his representation of his namesake to a higher level. Year-round, when invited, he dons a frock coat, cravat, and bushy gray wig to portray his famous ancestor; his wife, B.J. Douglass, joins him in the guise of Anna Murray Douglass. Both are now seasoned performers, with a stock of historical facts and memorized Douglass orations that they tailor to suit their audiences.
The Douglasses are especially concerned with reaching young African-Americans. "It's an opportunity to intervene and potentially change their lives," Douglass IV says, "if you can provide them with a positive image, a positive role model, a positive heritage." His great-great-grandfather's story, he says, is fraught with lessons about "abolition, economic empowerment, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, [and] the importance of reading and writing as a key to life."
Engaged as he is in bringing his ancestor's legacy to life, Douglass IV is skeptical about more traditional commemorations. "It would be easy to, say, put up a statue or put up some markers, but you have to give young people a reason [to pay attention]," he says. "Young African-Americans tend to be very kinetic. . . . [Many are] still caught up in this thing that it's cool to be dumb." Next to live portrayals, Douglass IV opines that a well-marked historic trail might be the best way to engage youthful imaginations.
Douglass IV is not alone in so thinking. According to Tom Saunders, president of Baltimore-based Renaissance Productions and Tours, African-American "heritage tourism" has become a $32 billion industry nationwide, but it has scarcely made a dent in Baltimore. Compared to Philadelphia, Chicago, and even the state of Alabama, Saunders says, Baltimore is grossly underachieving. "We don't have the nice facilities, but the history is here," he says. "I told [Mayor] Martin O'Malley [that] with the right promotion, Baltimore could become to black history what New Orleans is to Mardi Gras."
Former City Council member Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham, now vice president/development of the private Living Classrooms Foundation, agrees that Baltimore needs to seize the day. "The fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry is heritage tourism," he says, "and the fastest-growing segment of that is black-heritage tourism."
In 2002, if all goes as planned, Living Classrooms will make some amends for Baltimore's historic slights by opening the Frederick Douglass/Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Fells Point, close by the site of vanished Philpot Street. Cunningham avoids using the word "museum" in describing the project, but he sees great tourism potential in it. The park will include a marine railway (a track used to drag ships onshore for repairs) and a three-story educational center to be housed in a 150-year-old building known as the London Coffee House. Although the much-decayed building postdates Douglass' days in Baltimore, it's the oldest wharf structure left in Fells Point.
To create a more conventional shrine along with the maritime displays, Living Classrooms plans to hold a design competition for a statue or monument honoring both Douglass and Isaac Myers, who in the post-Civil War years organized and operated the first black-owned shipyard in Fells Point.
The park is being developed with a combination of private, city, and state funds. "This is the first money spent on the Inner Harbor that is neighborhood-related and African-American related," Cunningham says. "It's going to show you something most people have no idea about: the role free blacks and slaves had in the building of this economy." Shipbuilding, sail making, and ship repair will be performed there, much of it by students from the state's juvenile-justice system.
If Frederick Douglass--the original--were to visit Baltimore today, he'd scarcely recognize the place. He'd be flattered, no doubt, by the Maritime Park project, and it's likely that he'd approve of Living Classrooms' hands-on approach to reclaiming the lives of wayward teenagers. A firm believer in private enterprise, he might also appreciate the high-minded capitalism of businesspeople like Tom Saunders.
It's certain, however, that Douglass would be dismayed by what hasn't changed in the 105 years since his death. Despite the ascension of blacks to high posts in government and business, too many of Baltimore's African-Americans still live with the legacy of slavery. Can the legacy of one great ex-slave make any difference today? The notion has barely been tested. Douglass' name his well-remembered, but his work is unfinished. His words still ring, his story is still relevant. It's time for Frederick Douglass to come home.
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