Black ExperienceBlack History

More Than Statues Needed to Honor Frederick Douglass

Images of Frederick Douglass, especially in this region, are easy to find.

Last year a statue of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass was placed inside Maryland’s State House. In 2013 a state of Douglass was installed in Emancipation Hall of the United States Capitol. Another Douglass statue graces the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore as does a statue in College Park at the University of Maryland.

And, of course, he greets visitors at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Old Anacostia and he towers over the front of the Talbot County courthouse on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

What’s missing is the kind of information that breathes life into one of the most important figures in American history.

Where are the historic markers that can be used to establish a trail of his life?

Now, during Black History Month, lots of questions remain unanswered about Douglass. Instead, there is a string of unfulfilled initiatives.

Several local municipal and statewide agencies, along with federal partners, have a responsibility to uplift this history that has remained lost.

Unfortunately, the Congressional Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission, signed into law in 2017 by President Trump, and created in 2018, did not result in public-involved participation nor the development of a local, regional or national working plan to involve communities, institutions, stakeholders and historians.

A lack of coordination between partners locally and regionally has resulted in a disjointed effort to recognize Douglass within the greater D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan areas.

In Talbot County, across the Choptank River from Caroline County’s historic Hillsboro community, where Frederick Bailey frequented as a child with his grandmother, the local county and state effort to plan a Frederick Douglass Park has not resulted in coordination with federal partners in Washington at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, maintained by the National Park Service.

Last fall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and National Park Service announced a multiyear $400,000 grant to identify and map places of unknown historicity to Black Americans throughout the multistate Chesapeake Bay watershed from the antebellum era to the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, a network of 13 designated regions across the state tasked by the Maryland Department of Planning with attracting tourism and supporting historic preservation organizations, was identified as one of the major funders.

Furthermore, the state of Maryland announced last September it was seeking nominations and submissions from the public to recognize additional Network to Freedom sites to increase its current portfolio before the bicentennial celebration of Harriet Tubman’s birth in 1822. The Network to Freedom, administered by the National Park Service, was created with federal legislation in the late 1990s to identify and preserve sites associated with the Underground Railroad.
Currently, the route Douglass used to escape slavery from Baltimore in September 1838 remains unrecognized.

What’s more, the memory of the man has been poorly preserved. The latest focus through popular culture, such as the Showtime television series “The Good Lord Bird,” based on the book by James McBride, has been on taming and deprecating Douglass in the image of the imperfect champion instead of the fullness and a more humanizing study into his idiosyncrasies.

The modern tendency towards scandalmongering the man is of great disservice to the hardened, dutiful and tireless commitment Frederick Douglass had to the daily and eternal improvement of Black people.

An inattention to a close and exhaustive study of the lived history of Douglass from his connections and associations with Howard University to the Pratt Library in Baltimore to descendant communities throughout the Delmarva he visited following the Civil War results in a continued collective scholastic ignorance and public lack of recognition.

Moving forward there is an incredible opportunity to mobilize existing networks, communities and institutions to finally tell a more complete story of Frederick Douglass, the man and not the myth.

John Muller, author of “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia” (2012), is co-founder of Lost History Associates, with Justin McNeil. To learn more about virtual presentations and walking tours, go to <a href=”http://www.losthistoryusa.com” target=”blank”>www.losthistoryusa.com</a>.

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