Keeping family history alive

Ancestor: Frederick Douglass IV portrays his great-great- grandfather during a Black History Month program on the Constellation.

February 27, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and a descendant of the man who owned the abolitionist met yesterday on the gun deck of the Constellation, a ship that patrolled the coast of Africa to stop slavers in the early 1800s.

Frederick Douglass IV, dressed in cutaway coat and stovepipe hat, was portraying his ancestor in a Black History Month program on the ship, docked at the Inner Harbor.

He spoke of the "conflicted economics" of the 1800s that allowed a slave to become a ship's captain because his owner would get all the money, but kept some free whites out of that job.

And he told of Hugh and Sophia Auld, brother and the sister-in-law of the elder Douglass' owner, Thomas Auld. Hugh and Sophia Auld taught Douglass to read and write in a house in Fells Point and helped him become an apprentice ship caulker in Baltimore.

Yesterday, Carroll Remley Jr., the great-great-grandson of Hugh and Sophia Auld, and his wife, Elaine, sat on folding chairs about five rows back in the captain's cabin, waiting to introduce themselves.

"There are some things I want to share with him that my grandmother told me," Remley said. "We'll get together later, and I'll do that."

Douglass IV, head of public relations at Morgan State University, has been portraying Douglass for about three years in lecture halls and auditoriums throughout the country, partly because of a promise his mother extracted from him on her deathbed.

"She told him he must keep up the family story," said Douglass' wife, B.J. Douglass. "His mother made him promise her, `You'll not allow this story to die.' "

Among other things, Frederick Douglass taught slaves to read and write, which was illegal, helped them to escape by way of the Underground Railroad and founded the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.

Douglass IV said he believes he should be a role model for young African- American men.

"Once you are a man, you become a role model whether you want to be or not," he said. "I think if I am able to change one life, I have made a contribution."

The promise to his mother put "a new level of pressure" on him, Douglass IV said. But once he began telling the story in appearances throughout the country, the pressure eased.

"The minute people hear my name, they ask me about it, so I decided to do this in some organized fashion."

B.J. Douglass, a professional singer, opened the presentation dressed in period costume as Anna Murray Douglass and singing a gospel song.

It was Anna Murray, a free black, who encouraged Frederick Douglass to learn to read and write and who urged him to flee slavery. She married him and was the mother of his sons.

"We are the descendants of those who survived," B.J. Douglass said. "Are we angry? No. We're grateful that God has blessed us because we have come this far by faith."

Douglass IV, who bears a striking resemblance to his great-great-grandfather, said slavery was "a thing that conflicted your mind," that sometimes slaves developed a love-hate relationship with their masters.

Frederick Douglass was born in Tuckahoe on the Eastern Shore, the son of a slave and, some historians say, of a white man. He was a rambunctious youngster who asked too many questions, made at least one unsuccessful attempt to escape and who beat up a white overseer who had been beating him.

Through much of that, Thomas Auld protected him, Douglass IV said. Hugh Auld saved Frederick Douglass from a lynch mob by taking him to Baltimore, where he became an apprentice ship caulker.

That protection, and some physical resemblance, has fueled a family rumor that Douglass was Thomas Auld's son.

"That's why [Auld] protected him," said B.J. Douglass, recalling a meeting with descendants of Thomas Auld, in which she noticed the resemblance. "I was standing kind of behind them and looking at their noses, and I said, `Oh, my God.' "

Remley, who talks of seeing letters "from Fred Douglass" at a cousin's house, said his grandmother "sat me down when I was 15 and said, `Let me tell you about Frederick Douglass.' "

"She told me all about it."

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