THE DOUGLASS LIVING LEGACY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IN THE LIVING CLASSROOM Foundation on South Caroline Street, sixth-graders from the Crossroads charter school are sitting on the floor waiting for their surprise guests.

Jamila Sams, the dean of students, asks the children whether they know about Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist who lived in Baltimore.

None of them has an exact answer.

Then suddenly, a long, low wail erupts from the back of the room and a woman stomps in wearing a 19th-century teal dress that looks like it has a giant birdcage underneath the skirt. It's Anna Murray Douglass, the wife of Frederick Douglass, singing in an operatic voice.

"Everybody else came to America for commerce, but we were brought here in chains," says Anna Douglass, portrayed by B.J. Douglass. Her voice booms across the room, and the pupils can't help but let out a few giggles.

"I want to introduce you to a man I met down there in Baltimore," she says as the pupils turn around to see a tall man walk into the room with a black and gray cravat around his neck, gray pinstripe pants and a black top hat. "I would like to introduce you to Frederick Douglass."

"If you have a little time to spend with me," he says as he pulls out his pocket watch, which dangles from a chain, "I will tell you about my evolution from slavery to freedom.

"I was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My mother worked on a plantation 12 miles away and when she wanted to see me she had to walk 12 miles after a full day's work. When I awoke she would be gone."

Douglass, one of many great figures in Baltimore's history, lives on today through his great-great-grandson, Frederick Douglass IV, who, along with his wife, B.J., talks about the family legacy.

The recent performance is one of many that Douglass, 59, and his wife, 50, have staged over the past eight years to honor his great-great-grandfather, who rose to national prominence during the anti-slavery movement.

The true-life act, pulled from the pages of the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), tells of the horrors the writer endured as a slave until his escape in 1838.

"The idea [for the re-enactment] is to evoke these emotions and bring it down to a contemporary level," says Douglass, who bears a striking resemblance to his great-great-grandfather. "In order to talk about the responsibility that young people have to fulfill a promise, [we have] a debt to our ancestors to work hard and to achieve."

"This is not just a play," says B.J. Douglass. "This is something that is a serious history lesson and the power that transcends to our audience is absolutely, positively incredible."

The couple have been to the White House, performing before former President Bill Clinton, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife.

Last year, they traveled to Milwaukee to perform at an event for James Cameron, who was almost lynched in 1930. They also have performed for various corporations, civic groups, churches, high schools and colleges across the country.

Frederick Douglass IV got involved in the family legacy to fulfill his dying mother's request in 1990.

"I vowed that I would fulfill her request, particularly with regard to imparting information to youths," he says.

Before the re-enactments, Douglass worked as a freelance music writer for several publications in Baltimore. He also worked for the city of Baltimore, the United Way and retired as a public relations specialist at Morgan State University, his alma mater, in 2001.

The re-enactment is about history, but also weaves in themes such as poverty, self-esteem and what the couple calls "modern-day slavery" -- drugs and alcohol.

The couple says that they don't sugarcoat the reenactments, and their mission has sometimes led to death threats in some states.

But they continue performing because their work has brought about positive changes.

According to B.J. Douglass, they have received letters from African-American employees at a majority-white corporation who said the couples' performance there led to a change in the company's attitude toward black employees.

B.J. Douglass says these performances also help to shed light on Anna Murray Douglass' often-forgotten legacy. As a free black woman, she was instrumental in Douglass' escape from slavery.

"She is like so many women who do so much and don't get any credit," B.J. Douglass says.

During the recent reenactment, the Douglasses tell their young audience about Anna Murray Douglass.

Though he was still enslaved, Frederick Douglass met her at a social gathering of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a secret debating club of free blacks.

In character, the younger Douglass talks about the slave owner who hired his ancestor to work on the shipyards.

"He said I could buy my freedom for $1,000. It would have taken me 20 years to buy my freedom. I said, 'Anna what do you think I should do?' And she told me to run," he says.

Anna Douglass gave him the money she earned as a seamstress to help in the escape. The two later reunited and were married.

These performances also touch on the brutality of slavery.

"I remember one night I heard the chains clanking on the cobblestone and I looked out and saw a woman carrying a child and she was weak and she was tired and she stumbled," Frederick Douglass IV says while in character.

"The slave driver came and said: 'Get up.' He said: 'I am going to tell you one more time, get up!' He hit her three times across her back with a whip and I saw her reach back and she held her fingers up and the blood dripped through her fingers like crimson rain."

The young audience at Living Classroom Foundation was silent but visibly moved by the performance.

Breana Daniels, 11, says she connected with the stories of Douglass, who, during slavery was separated from his mother at a young age. She says she couldn't imagine being separated from her family.

Eleven-year-old Jerel Womack says he understood the contemporary themes.

"He [Douglass] found strength in himself," Jerel says.

To read excerpts from "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave" by Frederick Douglass, go to sunsite3.berkeley.edu / Literature / Douglass / Autobiography / .

To contact the Douglasses for a reenactment schedule, go to frederickdouglassiv.org.

B.J. AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS IV

B.J. and Frederick Douglass IV have been married for 30 years. They have a son and a daughter.

In addition to the re-enactments, the Douglasses are involved in civic matters. l They lobbied congressmen and senators for passage of legislation to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington. Frederick Douglass IV is also the president and one of the founders of the Friends of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum, which is expected to open in a decade, will collect, preserve, exhibit and honor periods associated with African-American life, art, history and culture.

The Douglasses are on the advisory board for the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park set to open in March on Baltimore's Thames and Philpot streets.

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Frederick Douglass was born in February 1818 in Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He would later make Baltimore his home, along with other East Coast cities.

His birth name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.

He later changed his name to elude slave hunters.

Here are some sites in the Maryland and Washington area where he lived and traveled:

The National Aquarium in Baltimore sits where the ship the Sally Lloyd landed in 1826 at what was then Smith's Pier and delivered 8-year-old Douglass into the hands of slave owners in Baltimore. He was sent to Hugh Auld's house on Philpot Street, on loan from his master, Thomas Auld of the Eastern Shore.

In Fells Point, on Lancaster and south Wolfe streets, there is a park with a plaque honoring Douglass. It was there that he learned his trade as a caulker at the shipyards, where he was "hired out" by the Aulds. Nearby on Thames and Philpot streets will be the new Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, which will open in March and will re-create the country's first African-American-owned railway / shipyard.

Douglass sang in the choir at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, formerly on Sharp Street between Pratt and Lombard streets. It is now the site of a Day's Inn. The church is now at 1206 Etting St.

Douglass was said to have purchased The Columbian Orator, a collection of patriotic speeches from Knight's bookstore, which was on Thames Street. It was a significant point in his intellectual development.

In 1872, he made Washington his home, but traveled to Baltimore frequently. He penned his last speech, an anti-lynching speech, in Washington in the grand 15-room mansion Cedar Hill, which has recently been restored in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast Washington. Information: call 202-633-4820 or go to anacostia.si.edu / Online_Academy / academy. htm.

In 1891, on a visit to Baltimore, Douglass was dismayed by the abject poverty that had taken over the black community. He built five houses on what was once Strawberry Alley (now Dallas Street) because of his growing concern for affordable housing in the black community. The house at 520 S. Dallas St. bears a marker that says "Douglass' Place."

Before his death in 1895, he was in the process of having a summer home built on Highland Beach, just southeast of Annapolis, says Janice Hayes-Williams, owner of Legacy Promotions. The Twin Oaks cottage sits high on a grassy hill above the dunes of Highland Beach. Douglass died before it was completed. It now serves as a museum that bears his name. The museum, which has been closed for renovations, is at 3200 Wayman Ave. Information: 410-267-6960.

For more information on Frederick Douglass, go to frederickdouglassiv.org

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°