Maryland's Greatest Native Son

April 01, 1994|By JOHN B. WISEMAN

CUMBERLAND — I have often wondered why Maryland has never fully commemorated its greatest native son, Frederick Douglass. Is the old free-line state embarrassed by its slave heritage? Is it still a slave to the racial prejudice that produced slavery? Or are we just indifferent to the quintessential democratic ideals that this heroic American embodied?

These principles -- liberty, freedom, equality, justice, opportunity were all partially rooted in the soil of Maryland and more deeply embedded in the soul of Douglass, its greatest champion.

The current squawk over the Roger B. Taney statue at the State House, and the counter proposal to balance Taney's presence with a monument to Thurgood Marshall, simply make the case for an over-arching tribute to Douglass more compelling. Few people who cherish American ideals dispute his unique importance. Yet, the only statue to Maryland's greatest gift to the nation, if not to ourselves, is on the Morgan State University campus. And it is in temporary storage while the building that overlooks it is being renovated.

Now is the time for the state to refurbish Douglass' Maryland heritage. Born a slave on our Eastern Shore in 1817, Douglass spent his first 20 years in slavery, years split between Talbot County and Baltimore City. His Maryland story is richly told in his three autobiographies and the superb biographies of this classic American life.

In the 19th century only Lincoln rivaled Douglass in personifying Martin Luther King's most memorable lesson to us about judging people by the conduct of their character rather than by the color of their skin. These two giants of the past were truly self-made men. They signify to us that nothing should keep a good man or woman down -- In the 19th century only Lincoln rivaled Frederick Douglass in devotion to equality.

not race, class, color, religion, background or gender. Douglass' last public appearance in 1895 was at a women's-rights meeting in nearby Washington.

Our national monuments to Lincoln are everywhere, and rightly so. He rose above his frontier origins to move the nation closer to living out its democratic ideals. Yet, how many Marylanders are reminded that a Marylander by birth and formative years came from even humbler and more oppressive origins that Lincoln? No one, not even Lincoln, fought so persistently to make our Constitution and our traditions more egalitarian. Douglass also matched Lincoln in brilliance of language and sheer courage.

If Maryland wants to make good on its much-used tourist proclamation of the state as ''America in miniature,'' it could do no better than to proclaim Douglass as its greatest native son. Were Lincoln or Marshall, perhaps even Taney, alive, I'm sure they would agree. During his agonizing Civil War years, Lincoln adopted Douglass' wartime goals of emancipation and came to admire Douglass' clairvoyance and statesmanship. Marshall, raised in Baltimore soon after Douglass' death, was surely greatly influenced by Douglass' egalitarian legacy in his heroic efforts to re-democratize our Constitution. Even Taney, a Jacksonian Democrat, advanced some democratic ideals for white folk.

What can Maryland do to rectify its omission? Let me suggest some possibilities. The legislature or the governor could name the stretch of Route 50 on the Eastern Shore starting at the Wye Oak exit near Douglass' birthplace the ''Frederick Douglass Freedom Road.'' That road running west to the Bay Bridge, could fittingly become part of a longer freedom highway that would match Boston's famous walking trail. Motorists could take that road to Fells Point, where Douglass worked as a ship caulker and prepared himself to escape slavery. The Douglass Freeway could even lead to the street and house where Douglass spent his last night as a slave before he launched his abolitionist crusade in the North.

There are other options. If Morgan State University would relinquish its prize possession, the refurbished Douglass statue might be relocated at the Fells Point Harbor facing north. Maybe the Morgan State Board of Trustees would consider renaming the school Frederick Douglass University, to match Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where Douglass, whose commitment to the importance of education knew no bounds, first stood on free soil.

Some university should seize the chance to honor the Marylander who insisted that the nation's destiny include all people, equally. Whatever landmark honoring Douglass Maryland officials might choose would honor all of us at precious little cost.

There has been much ado recently about football teams, stadiums and sports complexes in the state. Our state Senate even takes time and threatens to spend our money on what are called ''red-headed Eskimo'' bills -- personalized pork barrelism at its worst. Why don't our elected officials do something truly honorable this election year and properly recognize our greatest son and his matchless ideals and deeds? By paying tribute to Frederick Douglass we would honor the better Maryland.

John B. Wiseman teaches history at Frostburg State University. He is co-author of ''Maryland: Unity in Diversity.''

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