City ignores one of its most honored sons

January 23, 2002|By Gregory Kane

THE BLACK woman emerged from stage left, attired in one of those 19th-century dresses that were narrow at the waist but billowed at the bottom.

She wore a red hat with a black band and black gloves. Her voice - lovely, soulful and deep - soon filled the room, telling the audience how the ancestors of African-Americans came to these shores not voluntarily as immigrants seeking a better life, but in chains.

The woman told the audience she was playing Anna Douglass, who was the first wife of Frederick Douglass - abolitionist, writer, editor, lecturer, ambassador, presidential adviser and, arguably, the most outstanding American of the 19th century.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Bailey in Tuckahoe on the Eastern Shore. He lived and worked for a while in Baltimore. It was here that he met Anna.

"Ironically, she was born free," the woman told the audience. "But even though she was born free, life was still hard because there was always a chance of being forced into slavery."

Soon a man appeared from stage left, wearing a cutaway coat, vest, tie and stovepipe hat. A gray Afro wig poked from beneath the hat. The actor wore a beard and was nearly the spit and image of the man he portrayed: Frederick Douglass.

The resemblance comes honestly. The actor playing Frederick Douglass also is named Frederick Douglass. He's the fourth in the family to have the name. Frederick Douglass IV is the great-great-grandson of the abolitionist who browbeat President Lincoln into using black troops on the Union side during the Civil War and thus helped change the course of American - and probably world - history.

The performance - held Sunday in the children's wing of the Enoch Pratt's central library - was kept all in the family. Playing Anna Douglass was B.J. Douglass, who happens to be the wife of Frederick Douglass IV.

Douglass IV recounted the tale of his great-great-grandfather's life as Anna/B.J. sang in the background. The birth in Tuckahoe. The wrenching from his mother at an early age. The journey to Baltimore, where he learned to read and write and bought his first book. His run-in with (and sound thrashing of) the slave-breaker Covey and the escape from Baltimore to the North, with Douglass and his family eventually settling in Rochester, N.Y.

Douglass' adopted city has a museum and cultural center dedicated to him, and historical markers abound there, Douglass IV said. Rochester seems proud to have had Frederick Douglass as a resident.

Baltimore, where he lived and worked, seems to regard the man as something of an embarrassment. No historical markers can be found - although Louis C. Fields, president of Baltimore Black Heritage Tours, has been lobbying state and local officials for funding and permission to place them in Fells Point. There's a statue of Douglass on the campus of Morgan State University, a historically black school. A bust of him resides in the eponymous Frederick Douglass High School in the heart of overwhelmingly African-American West Baltimore. Douglass' legacy and image in Baltimore are kept safely where whites - tourists and locals - don't have to be reminded of him.

"It's the `prophet being without honor in his own country' syndrome," B.J. Douglass commented.

Baltimore's historical myopia may be what led Douglass IV to accept a position as the president of the Friends of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a group formed to encourage Congress to allocate money for such an entity on the National Mall in the nation's capital.

"We've gotten past some of the hurdles," Douglass IV said. "Congress has allocated $2 million for a 9-month study to develop a blueprint for where [the museum] will be housed."

Georgia Rep. John Lewis introduced the legislation that would establish the museum. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bill creating the commission to study the museum's location and structure, which President Bush signed at the end of last month.

Douglass IV is not the only descendant of a prominent African-American involved in the Friends group. James Henson, the secretary, is a descendant of Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who was the first man to set foot on the North Pole. Vice President Judith Turrentine is the widow of the late jazz artist Stanley Turrentine.

Some collectors of African-American historical artifacts have promised to donate them to the museum. An original copy of Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper, may find its way into a future exhibit, as well as original handwritten poetry by Phyllis Wheatley and letters written by Frederick Douglass and Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month.

"It's going to happen," Douglass IV said of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. "It's a question of how it's going to happen."

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