Descendants, advocates highlight Frederick Douglass' legacy ahead of bicentennial

Kenneth Morris, Frederick Douglass' great-great-great-grandson, lent his voice to the effort to have a statue of Douglass erected on the State House grounds. (Paul Gillespie / BSMG)

On the morning of the first day of February, Black History Month, President Donald Trump shed a 21st-century spotlight on a seminal 19th-century figure.

"Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed," Trump said, in comments some interpreted as indicating he thought the revered Eastern Shore-born abolitionist was still alive.


On the West Coast, Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Douglass' great-great-great-grandson, awoke that day to text messages, phone calls and press inquiries. Social media erupted with criticisms of Trump, and at one point, Douglass was trending on Twitter above the announcement that Beyonce was pregnant with twins.

Awkward as it was, the episode was well-timed to highlight the anti-slavery orator, as Morris, locals and scholars plan events, commemorations and publications looking ahead to Douglass' 200th birthday, on Feb. 14, 2018.

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President of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, Morris this month announced the "One Million Abolitionists" project to distribute 1 million copies of Douglass' first autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," published in 1845. The group, which strives to eradicate human trafficking, aims to use Douglass' story of enslavement and liberation to inspire youth to collaborate on service projects that address social concerns.

"In the mold of Frederick Douglass, we want young people to start working on issues they're passionate about in their community," Morris said.

Late last year, Maryland lawmakers proposed erecting a Douglass statue inside the state house, alongside anti-slavery hero and fellow Marylander Harriet Tubman.

These latest efforts come after a number of initiatives to make Douglass part of the state's "commemorative landscape." Markers and statues have been placed in Talbot County, in Fells Point, at Morgan State University and at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a portrait was installed in 2014 in the governor's house — the first of an African-American to be featured there.

Kenneth Morris Jr., the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass, talks about Douglass and the launch of the "One Million Abolitionists" project to celebrate his 200th birthday.

"It's finally arrived that Maryland can own up to this most famous of American former slaves, and it took time, but it's taken time for the whole world and public history and museums and historic sites to face up to slavery," said David Blight, an author and professor of history at Yale University who is set to publish a biography on Douglass in 2018.

Legacy of words

Born a slave in Talbot County in 1818, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was sent from Eastern Shore plantations to Baltimore to be a house servant around age 8. There, he'd learn the alphabet from his slaveholder's wife. Soon, her husband forbade the teaching, reasoning that educating a slave would make him unfit and discontent, Douglass wrote in his 1845 autobiography. Education became a platform for Douglass.

"From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I least expected it," Douglass wrote. "Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."

At age 20, Douglass escaped slavery, becoming a revered author and journalist dedicated to freeing slaves, fighting for equal rights for people of color and women and the acceptance of immigrants. During the Civil War, he served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln and helped recruit African-American troops for the Union. He later served as a diplomat in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Blight, who also serves on the board of directors for Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, said most people remember Douglass for his heroic escape from slavery, but "the Douglass that grew in middle age and old age, who ended up offering explanations of what slavery meant, what the Civil War meant, what emancipation meant, what the Constitutional amendment meant, what equality meant — no one had a voice on those issues in the 19th century quite like Douglass."

"He will always be remembered and always used, one hopes, for his words."

The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives' current project aims to turn Douglass' words into contemporary deeds. The organization is self-publishing 5,000 copies of the biography to distribute in multiple cities in March, according to Morris, 54, who lives in Southern California. Officials are looking to other organizations, companies and individuals to help fund the publishing of the remaining books needed to hit the millon mark, which he estimates will cost around $4 million.

On Friday, Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch recognized Morris for his work in educating the public on human trafficking and the "One Million Abolitionists" project.

And on Tuesday, Morris and the co-founders of his group — his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, and his friend and business partner Robert J. Benz — will officially launch the project at the Library of Congress, which has featured Douglass' first autobiography on its "Books that Shaped America" list.

"The idea is to give out as many books as we can in 2017 to 2018," said Morris, with an emphasis on communities of color and those affected by poverty. High schools that bear Douglass' name and cities where the abolitionist spent his time, including Rochester, N.Y., and Washington, are also priorities. Baltimore is at the top of Morris' list.

"In the same way that Frederick Douglass started to question his condition, we want 1 million young people around the country to start to question their conditions, question these systemic issues that oppress them or conspire to keep them down," Morris said, "like systemic issues of racism, like mass incarceration, the lack of opportunity for education, lack of opportunities for economic equality and all of the social ills that we know exist in communities of color and poor communities around the country."

Other memorials

In November, Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats, proposed erecting statues of Douglass and Tubman in the State House's Old House of Delegates Chamber. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, agreed to the plan.

A proposal to place statues of anti-slavery heroes Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the Maryland State House would add a new chapter to the history of Maryland as told through its iconic capitol building.

Advocate Chip Bohl, an architect who restored Douglass' Highland Beach summer home, has launched a petition to place the statue in a more prominent and provocative position — outside, staring down a statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, known for ruling that African-Americans had no rights under the Constitution in the 1857 Dred Scott decision. More than 200 people have signed, according to the petition's website; Morris is among them.

"Some people want Taney's statue torn down. We don't," said Raymond Langston, 77, a commissioner and former mayor of Highland Beach. "We want Douglass to face him, and instead of tearing down statues and ... history, we're going to make history by having a conversation of who these people were and why they are placed here and the historical significance of each of them."

Yet that alternative proposal looks unlikely.


Busch said Friday there has been a longstanding effort to memorialize Douglass and Tubman on the State House grounds, and this year the General Assembly has expedited a plan to spend $300,000 on the project.

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Statutes of the two would be included in a new exhibit commemorating the 1800s. "It's the time and era in which they played their most significant contribution to history – during the abolitionist movement and the Civil War," he said. "There's going to be more people coming through that exhibit" than visiting statues outside, Busch said.

In Baltimore, Lou Fields, president of the Baltimore African-American Tourism Council, has hosted tours celebrating Douglass' history for the past 17 years and has long vocalized the need for a more active memorial in the city for Douglass.

In 2002, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley placed the first of a series of signs in the city that marked locations significant throughout Douglass' lifetime. The signs, in Fells Point, where Douglass once lived as a slave and later purchased property as a free man, were replaced and repaired when vandalized or removed, but they have not been replaced in years, according to Fields. Fields will speak about the markers and other African-American history sites he deems endangered at a City Council meeting Monday.

Lester Davis, spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said spotlighting Fields' work to the council would drive awareness to his restoration efforts.

"There really is no excuse for having these sites not be in the best condition possible," Davis said. "The council president is interested in finding a way to partner with folks. It's vital work."

Fields compares Douglass' legacy to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "He became known as the 'father of civil rights.'"

Helen Yuen, director of marketing at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, noted that a lecture on Douglass this month was one of the most well attended in the museum's history. His original photographs and copies of his books are some of the most popular items there.

Each speak "to the central, core role that Maryland had and that Douglass had in shaping American history," she said. A project like "One Million Abolitionists" will allow people to do a deeper dive into Douglass' history, she said.

In Blight's eyes, there's room for more, akin to how the nation celebrates King, Lincoln or President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"We need a memorial somewhere, like the King Memorial in Washington, like the Lincoln Memorial, like the Roosevelt Memorial, that really captures, let's say, 10 or 20 of the most important and lasting passages from [Douglass'] speeches and his writings," Blight said.

"Just statues of him standing there are fine, but we need something that commemorates his mastery, the magic with language to explain what America was becoming or what it ought to be."

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser, Erin Cox and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.