Howard County residents are no strangers to Maryland Area Rail Commuter trips across the Baltimore-Washington region. But what today’s commuters might not know is they are riding the same rail system used by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass nearly 150 years ago.
From his post-Civil War-era home in Washington, D.C., Douglass could walk down to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depot at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and catch a train north. He would have disembarked at what is now the MARC Savage and Jessup stations for his visits to Howard County.
“[He could] probably be in Howard County, if he caught the right train, within an hour, hour and a half, maybe even less,” said Columbia resident and local historian John Muller, author of the 2012 book “Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia.”
On Tuesday, Muller presented information on Douglass’ overlooked relationship with Howard County at the Elkridge Branch Library and provided insight on what drew him to the area.
After poring through old newspaper clippings and archives, Muller confirmed at least four separate occasions when Douglass visited Howard County in the 1880s and 1890s to deliver speeches and meet with local activists.
“I loved all the old, archival photos and all the places [Muller] was naming,” said Elkridge Branch research specialist Adrienne Zeroth. “I know all these places, but it’s hard when you look at the map because everything has changed. Still, it’s like, ‘Wow, [Douglass] was right here.’”
Political rallies, camp meetings and the B&O Railroad
Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped north in 1838 and became a renowned orator and leading antislavery advocate. Muller has spent more than a decade researching Douglass’ less-known political activism around Washington, where the statesman moved in 1877 and lived for the rest of his life.
While scholarly work tends to put his activism in national and international contexts, Douglass was heavily involved in Maryland state Republican politics during the last 25 years of his life, according to Muller. During his first confirmed visit to Howard in July 1884, Douglass spoke in favor of unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine.
“During these visits to Howard County, Frederick Douglass was a link between generations of local and regional leaders within faith, educational and political-based communities that crisscrossed Howard County,” Muller explained.
Douglass attended Republican Party rallies and Methodist camp meetings at Irving Park and Wayman Grove in the county’s southeast. Camp meetings — large outdoor religious gatherings that often advanced reform movements such as temperance—could draw as many as 15,000 attendees from neighboring counties.
Muller says Howard County’s central location and extensive rail network made it a natural place for members of African Methodist Episcopal churches from across the state to gather.
“Irving Park and Wayman Grove were successful with their annual meetings because they could draw from D.C., Baltimore and Annapolis,” said Muller, likening the sites to today’s Howard County Fairgrounds. “It was very convenient.”
He also noted the B&O Railroad was unusually progressive for its day, employing Black workers and offering discounted tickets to Black passengers traveling to camp meeting grounds.
“When Douglass got a train ticket for the B&O Railroad, he knew he would not face discrimination,” Muller said. “If he was taking a train in the South or even in other areas in the Midwest, sometimes it was questionable.”
Douglass and the Howard County diaspora
Douglass’ relationship with Howard County was by no means limited to his appearances at Irving Park and Wayman Grove.
As a member of the board of trustees of Howard University from 1871 to 1895, Douglass frequently interacted with Black Howard County residents who attended the school and even opened up his home for Sunday literary salons.
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While living in the north before the Civil War, Douglass also worked with fellow Marylanders who had escaped slavery, including Howard County native Oliver Cromwell Gilbert.
Enslaved on the Walnut Grove plantation in Clarksville, Gilbert successfully fled Howard County via the Underground Railroad in 1848 at the age of 16.
“[He] lived a remarkable life, crossing paths with Frederick Douglass untold and unknown times across decades within antislavery networks across the East Coast,” Muller said.
Both men worked with William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the famous abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and went to conventions alongside other expat Marylanders.
Gilbert even listed Douglass as a reference in an 1872 newspaper advertisement for a hotel he ran in Saratoga Springs, New York, further demonstrating their closeness.
For Muller, Douglass’ relationship with Howard County is a testament to the strength of the religious, educational and political institutions built by its residents. And just like today’s commuters, Douglass was always looking for ways to save on mileage as he traveled across the state.
“I’ve found some indications that Douglass would have had almost like a monthly pass or yearly pass or a flash pass,” Muller reflected. “As opposed to having to go to the ticket booth, Douglass would kind of just show his pass and hop on the train.”