Footnote to tale of abolitionist

The Education Beat

Speech: In 1894, Frederick Douglass spoke at the city's first public high school for blacks.

August 07, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE OTHER day I spotted a young man in the blessed shade of a Calvert Street bus kiosk. He was reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself.

Bingo! I thought. The book had been chosen by Mayor Martin O'Malley and Pratt Library Director Carla D. Hayden as "Baltimore's Book" in a two-month community "readathon." Through the end of next month, Baltimoreans are reading Douglass' marvelous 19th-century memoir, discussing it, featuring it at book clubs and perhaps visiting Fells Point, where as a boy Douglass learned the empowering nature of reading.

Douglass lived here from the age of 10 to about 16, but he was born in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore and spent much of his life away from Baltimore. He visited often, though, and in 1894 delivered a speech at the sixth annual commencement of the Colored High School, the city's first public high school for African-Americans.

It was a great speech delivered with timeless themes by a master orator. A summary might be a helpful footnote for those who are enjoying Narrative. But first, some background.

Tickets to the commencement were so hot that city officials feared trouble - it was a mixed-race audience - and assigned 58 officers, the Baltimore American reported, "but everything passed off as quietly as at a well-regulated church."

For 15 years, Douglass, 76, had been fighting a battle that today seems ironic: to have black students taught by black teachers. It would take another 60 years for the first black men and women to cross the invisible line to teach in formerly white public schools in Baltimore.

As reported in The Sun, Douglass told the packed house at Harris' Academy of Music on North Howard Street: "The Colored High School proves that Baltimore is fully abreast of the chief cities of the American Union. All America shall imitate Baltimore in giving education to the colored man. The vital point of interest now is manhood, and colored people have made a mistake in laying so much stress on race.

"It is better to be a man than to be an American, Englishman, German or Frenchman. It is better to be the part of a whole than the whole of a part. I hear from colored leaders of race pride, race effort, race superiority or race inferiority. It is all wrong. Race pride is the very thing that keeps the foot upon the negro's neck today." (The Sun's style at the time spelled Negro with a lower-case "n".)

Douglass turned to the 11 graduates. "To what race do these belong?" he asked. "The black people are my people, the yellow people are my people. The white people are my people. There is no moral or intellectual quality in color, neither good nor bad, nothing to be ashamed of or to be proud of."

When blacks are "dormant and apathetic," Douglass told his audience, "we meet no resistance, not even in the rail cars of the South. Whenever people are getting up, they are called upstarts, but happily for us, the upstarts of today will be the elite tomorrow."

Douglass accepted a bouquet from the graduates. Eight months later he died of a heart attack at his home overlooking the Potomac in the District of Columbia.

The Sun prominently displayed the obituary of the "noted freedman, orator and diplomat" and "probably the best-known negro who has ever been before the people of the United States in an official or prominent light." The sub-headline: "Talbot County Was His Birthplace - The Prominent Part He Has Played in Republican Politics for Over Quarter of a Century - He Married a White Woman - His Death Was Very Sudden."

Schools chief search in NYC a boon for Russo

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has selected Joel Klein, an antitrust lawyer, to head the 1.1-million student New York City school system. This means Baltimore schools CEO Carmen V. Russo won't get the job. But just being mentioned prominently as one of the people on Bloomberg's A-list has thrust Russo into the national spotlight.

Bloomberg's selection process was so secretive that no one but he knows how seriously Russo was considered. But all of the New York newspapers and several national publications listed the 66-year-old Bronx native and former head of high schools in New York as a serious contender. One insider at Baltimore's North Avenue school headquarters said Russo did nothing to discourage the speculation and would dearly love to return to the Big Apple.

She couldn't have purchased better publicity than a story in Sunday's New York Times profiling four school chiefs in "The Super Bowl" - heads of urban districts who are "reversing the course of failing schools."

Besides Russo, they are the chiefs in San Diego, Seattle and Cleveland.

Dee Lyon, a recently retired Sun library researcher, contributed to this column.

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