Out and About (Sort of): Eloquent Fighter by Howard Freedlander

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He was a nobody, simply viewed as chattel. He wasn’t content. He willed himself to become a somebody, armed with keen intelligence and steely resolve.

Even when he became known and revered, he still faced threats of being consigned to nothingness, to serving others involuntarily.

He escaped his country of origin, living in a country where friends raised sufficient money for him to become permanently free of the suffocating and dehumanizing restraints of slavery.

Of course, I’m describing Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), whose 200th birthday was celebrated February 14, 2018. This anniversary was celebrated widely throughout the country two weeks ago.

I joined more than a 100 people as a living history interpreter and storyteller, Bill Grimmette, portrayed the 77-year-old Douglass on Feb. 12 at the Academy Art Museum in Easton. It was moving and thought-provoking. As intended.

Talbot County’s native son and former slave, who spent time as a young boy at Wye House on Bruff’s Island Road, came alive in Grimmette’s superb and nuanced performance. Douglass’ wisdom, determination, eloquence and humor permeated the room for an hour.

As is well known, Douglass became an accomplished and renowned writer, orator and abolitionist. He achieved even more prominence as a trusted confidant of President Abraham Lincoln. He provided a voice of conscience about the terror of slavery to a president during our nation’s regrettable Civil War. He successfully urged Lincoln to prod Confederate forces to treat captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war, not mutilate and kill them. He threatened to stop recruiting African-American troops into the Union army if President Lincoln didn’t speak out against the treatment of black prisoners.

Convinced early of his self-worth despite treatment as a “nobody.” he experienced some lucky breaks–though they must be judged in the context of being mentally and emotionally repressed in an often violent, bigoted environment. Some examples of fortunate circumstances that came Douglass’ way were:

He leaves Wye House to become a slave to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. At first, Sophia treats him well, teaching him to read. When her husband Hugh instructs his wife to stop educating Frederick, explaining that education can implant subversive ideas, Douglass learns the importance of knowledge. He also understands the utter necessity to escape slavery.

When he does decide to escape, he receives advice to pretend he is a sailor while sailing to his freedom. He understood he had to hide his slave status to become an ex-slave. He knew he had to flee the relentless slave-catchers.

He eventually went to England, becoming a popular speaker and unrepentant abolitionist. He gained his freedom, his manumission, through financial support from his British. Ironically, he had to travel abroad to gain his precious and legal freedom in his home country.

As Douglass became famous, courted by American political leaders, he never forgot his roots. He remained an unabashed advocate for civil rights. I suspect that he was discouraged by the regressive practices of Jim Crow. After Reconstruction, blacks faced stifling discrimination, often subtle but destructive nonetheless. Separate but (supposedly) equal education epitomizes Jim Crow at its cruelest.

I must admit I love learning history through historical actors, as I have done for years during periodic visits to Williamsburg, VA. I’ve gained invaluable insight into George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison—and slaves seeking freedom. Bill Grimmette gave me and others a view into the magnetic personality of Frederick Douglass.

Though Douglass wasn’t one of our nation’s founders, he gave voice and emotion to the stain of slavery. The founders had ignored this scourge, approving a U.S. Constitution that papered over an explosive subject.

One of Talbot County’s own became a national treasure.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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