February 14, 2018

Reflections on the Life of Frederick Douglass

When I visit historic places, I often feel a connection to the people who lived there long ago. It’s one of my favorite aspects of delving deep into our history. I recently traveled to historic sites in Maryland related to Frederick Douglass, and my goal was to find the sense of place that I often look for as a preservationist. I wanted to connect to a great figure in American history, and to learn more about him by getting in touch with places that were meaningful throughout his life. However, my takeaway from these sites was more complicated than I had anticipated.

During my visit, I felt a particularly strong sense of place at two sites. The first was Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Talbot County, Maryland. Though the AME chapter first came into existence in 1818, its current home was built in 1877 and dedicated by Frederick Douglass in 1878. A sign out front explains that the church helped create a thriving, economically and socially viable community for African Americans living in the area.

As I stood looking at the building’s stained-glass windows and arched doors, I could hear the pastor inside delivering a passionate sermon. Between the beautiful, historic facade, the sign out front adding context to the church’s history, and the ongoing sermon, I began to feel the sense of timelessness I often do when visiting historic sites. The experience also helped me think more deeply about the way that African American churches built up their communities and empowered them to survive the oppression they regularly experienced.

The facade of Bethel AME Church in Easton, Maryland.

photo by: Carson Bear

The historic facade of Bethel AME Church.

Historic marker for Unionville cemetery, Maryland.

photo by: Carson Bear

A historic marker attributing the lives of African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

Though it isn’t directly related to Douglass, the Unionville cemetery was another site important to laying the groundwork for my sense of place during his lifetime. Previously enslaved and free African Americans once settled in this historic Maryland town. Many citizens were in the Union army during the Civil War. The Unionville cemetery includes a marker detailing the history of these soldiers’ service, and many of their graves are still intact. I read the marker commemorating the soldiers and walked around to look at the graves. Much like at Bethel AME Church, I could sense that the history of this place was still alive.

While Bethel AME Church and Unionville helped me understand significant moments in Frederick Douglass’s life, other sites—though equally significant in Douglass’s life—did not promote such a strong connection.

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At the base of the Tuckahoe Creek Bridge in Maryland, a historic marker reads “Frederick Douglass, 1817-1895. Negro Patriot.” Douglass was born in Tuckahoe (most likely in 1818), in a cabin occupied by his grandmother Betsy and her husband, who was free. The sign is next to a highway barrier, so I pulled off to the side of the road to get a better look. I was disappointed, though, that there wasn’t any other physical indication of Douglass’s young life in this area. I can imagine that people tend to drive right by the sign without knowing who it’s commemorating.

After Douglass turned 16, his owner Thomas Auld sent him to Mount Misery in St. Michaels. This plantation gets its name for the cruelty of its owner, Edward Covey—more commonly known as the “Slave Breaker.” After months of hard labor and physical abuse under Covey, Douglass stood his ground and, according to him, “became a man for the first time.” Today, former politician Donald Rumsfeld owns Mount Misery; the plantation was a weekend getaway from his life in Washington, D.C. Residents of St. Michaels complained about the insensitivity of Rumsfeld’s purchase, and nothing on the property indicates that it was once the site of one of the most violent slave owners in St. Michaels.

Talbot County Boys and Federick Douglass statues in front of the Talbot County Courthouse, Maryland.

photo by: Carson Bear

Talbot County Courthouse lawn. On the left is a statue of the "Talbot Boys." On the right, a statue of Frederick Douglass.

When I visited Talbot County Jail, there wasn’t even a sign out front commemorating Douglass’s time spent at that site. The original Talbot County Jail was torn down and rebuilt in 1881. The Talbot County Courthouse, located next door to the jail, seems to be one of the most explicit celebrations of Frederick Douglass in Easton. On the right side of the courthouse lawn stands a majestic statue of Douglass, mid-oration. Across the lawn from his statue is another, dedicated to “The Talbot Boys, CSA” (Confederate Sons of America).

According to a 2016 Washington Post article, the Talbot Boys memorial was constructed in 1916, during the Jim Crow era. The NAACP has since attempted to replace the statue with a new memorial that honors both Union and Confederate soldiers, as there were more Union soldiers from Talbot County than Confederates in the Civil War. The Douglass statue was part of a related effort to balance the narrative between the Confederacy and those they enslaved. Even that decision, however, was met with protests that the courthouse lawn should be reserved for memorials to veterans.

The controversary surrounding these two memorials on the Talbot County Courthouse lawn—once the county’s primary slave market—is indicative of the way Douglass’s legacy was protected in the places I visited. Some of these places offer up a strong connection to Douglass’s life and legacy. Others are easy to miss for those who aren’t looking.

When I returned home that day, I realized how important it is to have a sense of place when we visit historic sites. I wasn’t able to fully synthesize the many lessons Douglass’s experiences and words teach (the demand for equality for all people, the struggle to survive in the face of oppression, the value of true freedom, and so on), because many of these sites didn’t address these lessons fully. To attain that sense of place, it is vital to preserve people’s stories alongside the places they make matter.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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