Tour follows abolitionist's footsteps

Participants visit city sites linked to Douglass to mark his escape from slavery

September 04, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

There is no historical marker at the vacant lot near Caroline and Thames streets where Frederick Douglass walked into a store to buy his first book. There are no signs on the white concrete garage on Aliceanna Street or in the parking area across from H&S Bakery on Fleet Street, other Fells Point sites associated with the famous abolitionist.

Ellen Frost passes them nearly every day but didn't realize until yesterday that each site was important in the life of Douglass, who spent nearly 10 years in Fells Point before he escaped from slavery in Baltimore and became one of the 19th century's most important human and civil rights activists.

"We live up the street but never knew this was here," said Frost, who lives in Fells Point and was with about 80 people, including Douglass' great-great-grandson, Frederick Douglass IV, who joined a walking tour to mark the 163rd anniversary of Douglass' escape from slavery.

Led by Louis C. Fields, president of Baltimore Black Heritage Tours, the group stopped at the garage at Durham and Aliceanna streets where Douglass' slave quarters stood. They paused at the vacant lot where historians believe the store in which Douglass bought his first book stood. And they spent a few minutes at the site of the church where Douglass worshipped and later built a row of houses - all of which are still standing - across from H&S Bakery.

"The very steps you're taking are the steps Frederick Douglass took," Fields said. "Thousands of people pass these spots every day who have no idea about the historical significance of [them.]"

Douglass, who was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore as Frederick Bailey, came to Baltimore as a slave at age 8. He remained a slave until 1838, when he made his escape by train - posing as a sailor - to Philadelphia. He went to New York and then Massachusetts, where he changed his last name to Douglass and became a preacher, lecturer, writer and activist. Fields, who has been lobbying state and local officials for funding and permission to place historical markers, said the group hopes to unveil the signs in February to mark the anniversary of Douglass' birth.

Unlike other cities in which Douglass lived or worked, such as Rochester, N.Y., there are few plaques about Douglass' life in Baltimore.

However, construction is under way on the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Fells Point.

The museum, dedicated in part to Douglass, is scheduled to be completed next year or 2003, Fields said.

Terri Neal, a program manager for the United Negro College Scholarship Fund, drove from Laurel yesterday to participate in the tour. Although she was familiar with Douglass' achievements, Neal said, "I was looking forward to seeing the local history."

Frederick Douglass IV and his wife, B.J. Douglass, who live in Anne Arundel County, addressed the group before and after the tour. Frederick Douglass encouraged the group not only to read about black history but also to read it aloud. "Bring the words to life," he said. "That's what this is all about."

The tour will be repeated at 10 a.m. Saturday beginning at the Fells Point Visitors Center, 808 S. Ann St.

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