Honoring Frederick Douglass at Washington College

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Author and historian David Blight; President Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and 3X Great Grandson of Frederick Douglass; Kenneth Morris with two Douglass cousins, Dale Green and Tarence Bailey and his wife Michelle Bailey

Washington College celebrated the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth on a Talbot County plantation by awarding the famous abolitionist an honorary Doctor of Laws degree Friday, Feb. 23. The ceremonies were held in in the college’s Decker Theater.

Frederick Douglass at about age 70

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), was born into slavery in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.   While still a young child, Douglass taught himself to read and write. He escaped at age 20 and went on to become one of the most eloquent and effective opponents of slavery. He became a licensed preacher in 1839 at age 21, traveled the world, telling his story and speaking about the evils of slavery. After a group of supporters raised money and paid Douglass’s old master for his freedom in 1847, it was safe for Douglass to return to the United States as a legal freedman.  He founded and was publisher/writer for the North Star and several other abolitionist publications.  During the Civil War, he was one of Lincoln’s advisors.  He was an early advocate of full citizenship for women. Throughout his life, Douglass remained a strong voice for the rights of African Americans and human rights in general. Douglass’s autobiography, first published in 1845 and twice revised and expanded in later years – is considered one of the monuments of anti-slavery literature.  It was a best-seller when first published and is widely-read today.

Speakers at the convocation included Yale professor of American History David Blight and Kenneth Morris, a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass. Blight is a well-known historian with over ten published books on American history. He is also director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. He has just completed a full-scale biography of Douglass, which is scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster this fall in October.

Blight, who was granted the Washington College Award for Excellence, was the first speaker. He noted that Donald Trump, in comments a few weeks ago, seemed to believe that Douglass was still alive. Blight then held up a t-shirt reading “Vote Douglass 2020,” suggesting to great laughter and applause from the audience that Douglass might run 2020 as a member of the Radical Abolition Party.

David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, director of Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale

Blight gave an overview of Douglass’s career, noting that Douglass was one of the most acute critics of the cruelties and contradictions of slavery and racism. His writings and speeches were full of allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible, “a lyrical prophet.” He gave thousands of speeches, traveling to all corners of the world. Blight concluded by urging the Washington College students in the audience, in Douglass’s words, to “go and act in the world,” and use their “voice, pen and vote” to bring about the goals that Douglass fought for and that still remain to be achieved.

Kenneth Morris, 3x great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, receives Washington College Award for Excellence from college president Kurt Landgraf.

Morris, who is both the great-great-great grandson of Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, also received the Washington College Award for Excellence.  He is descended from Douglas on his father’s side and from Washington on his mother’s side. Morris’ s  grandmother was the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. His grandparents met on the campus of Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington.   Morris is  continuing his ancestor’s legacy of anti-slavery activity in the modern world. He is co-founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, which works to educate people about all forms of slavery in the modern world and inspire them to action. Morris said that slavery and the selling of human beings into bondage–nowadays called human trafficking, the buying and selling of human beings– is widespread throughout our modern global economy, including within the United States.  Morris has spent the last ten years building the organization, pushing for legislation, bringing speakers, curriculum, and workshops to many schools and other organizations.  You can visit their website at http://www.fdfi.org.

College President Kurt Landgraf, introducing Morris, noted that Morris spent part of the day with local middle school students, distributing a new edition of Douglass’s autobiography.  The organization hopes to distribute a million free copies to students, libraries, and other groups by the end of 2018. Landgraf then presented the posthumous degree to Douglass, which Morris accepted on behalf of the family to a thunderous response from the large audience.

Morris, in remarks accepting the award, recognized two other family members in the audience, Dale Green and Tarence Bailey, both descendants of Frederick Douglass’s brother. Morris said that his great grandmother, who lived to age 103, had met Douglass, so he had touched hands that had touched the great abolitionist! He told of Douglass’s early days on the Eastern Shore, where he lived till age 7. Douglass saw his mother, a slave on another plantation, only four times because of the stringent conditions of slavery; she had to walk 12 miles after her day’s labor was done if she wanted to visit him. Sent to Baltimore to be a house servant, he came to the attention of his master’s wife, who began to show him the alphabet, only to be reprimanded by her husband, who told her it was illegal to educate a slave. That inspired Douglass to seek out an education on his own, learning to read by trading bread for lessons – “He’d rather feed his mind than his stomach,” Morris said. At the same time, Douglass learned to recognize hypocrisy and to think critically. Bringing Douglass’s writings into classrooms everywhere, Morris said, will help young students arrive at the same recognitions — to “get woke,” in the current vernacular. “The spirit of Frederick Douglass lives with us,” he said, adding Douglass’s own words, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”

Sombarkin trio sang two traditional spirituals from the slavery era, including the Underground Railroad “guide” song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – Lester Barrett, Jr., Karen Somerville, Jerome McKinney

In addition to the honors to Douglass, the ceremonies were enlivened by performances by WACapella, the student acapella group, and by the trio Sombarkin (Lester Barrett Jr., Jerome McKinney and Karen Somerville), who performed the two spirituals, “Trimmed and Burning” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd,”

Also at the convocation, Washington College awarded the President’s Medal to Emmanuel Episcopal Church and Sabine Harvey for their contributions to community life and to the college. Staff members Judie Berry Barroll, Harriet Pritchard Olsen and Ashley R. Turlington received the Joseph L. Hold Distinguished Service Award for their outstanding contributions to the mission of the college. Ed Norberg was granted the Alumni Service Award. Faculty and staff members were recognized for reaching milestones of service with the college. And 34 students were invited to join the college’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. A fuller report of these honors will appear in an upcoming Chestertown Spy article.

 

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