The governor’s reception room at the Maryland State House in Annapolis was packed as Gov. Larry Hogan proclaimed 2018 the Year of Frederick Douglass. The Feb. 13 announcement marked the bicentennial of the birth of the man Hogan called, “an incredible Marylander and true American icon. . . . His fight, for human rights and equality still resonate to this day.”
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818. The exact date of Douglass’ birth is uncertain. He declared February 14th his birthday. He taught himself to read and write, a dangerous move in those days.
His escape to freedom in 1838 led to the change of his name to Frederick Douglass in hopes of eluding his master. He was an orator and journalist who co-founded the anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star. Douglass was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln and the first African-American nominated for vice-president. He boldly told White America in July 1852, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
A year-long celebration of Douglass is underway in Maryland, the region and the nation. On the national scale, an act of Congress established The Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the measure was signed into law by the President Barack Obama in Nov. 2017. The 16-member federal commission is tasked with planning programs throughout the year honoring Douglass.
In Maryland, the Department of Commerce and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture launched a driving tour called: Following in His Footsteps. The tour, a 131-mile-long trail, leads visitors to two dozen sites that shaped the legacy of Douglass and highlight some of the character defining moments in his life.
Nettie Washington Douglass, the great, great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass, attended the special ceremony at the Annapolis State House. “I feel a kindred spirit with Frederick Douglass,” she told the AFRO. “My grandmother talked about him all the time . . . she called him the man with the big white hair.” Adding to her legacy, Nettie’s father, Frederick Douglass III married Nettie Hancock Washington, the great granddaughter of Booker T. Washington.
Nettie’s son, Kenneth Morris Jr. was also at the ceremony. He told the AFRO that he spent much of his life running from the DNA of history.
“There was a weight of expectation that was definitely on me when I was younger. I had seen what the pressure had done to those that came before me, but can you imagine growing up and seeing your ancestors on statues; they’re on money. They are on stamps, bridges are named after them, schools, libraries, everywhere I turned I was in the long vast shadow of Frederick Douglass,” Morris said.
That changed a decade ago when Morris and his mother founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI), an organization that combines lessons from the legacies of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. This year, as part of the celebration, the FDFI started a new initiative called: One Million Abolitionists. The goal is to print one million hard cover copies of Douglass’ 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and distribute them to young people across the United States.
The hope is to inspire young readers as it did when first published, to do and be more than they ever imagined.
Morris and his mother were joined by a host of others the day after the Annapolis ceremony, in Queen Anne County near the Tuckahoe River, for the dedication and groundbreaking of Frederick Douglass Park about one mile from his birthplace.
As that event was unfolding, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled a newly restored portrait of Douglass that now hangs in the mayor’s ceremonial room. The painting was commissioned in 1936 by Recorder of Deeds William J. Thompkins. Fifty-five years earlier Frederick Douglass held that post.
Construction began this week on D.C.’s largest project ever, the $441 million Frederick Douglass Bridge. It will connect South Capitol Street, Potomac Avenue and Q Street all in the southeast quadrant of the District, while crossing the Anacostia River.
There is also a screen play in the works titled, Mr. Douglass. Morris says they hope to have it completed and on the silver screen by next year.
Back at the State House, Gov. Hogan, who lent his voice to those calling for the removal of the statue of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, announced that statues of two other Marylanders are in the works to replace it. The new statues are Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad, and Douglass, whose voice cried out to the wilderness of then and now.