The Douglass legacy

September 30, 2002

FORMER MAYOR Kurt Schmoke wanted Baltimore to become the city that reads. In a place where poverty and crime and lack of hope conspire against learning, some found his goal beyond achieving. It won't be easy to reach, of course, but it has to be the goal.

Mr. Schmoke's successor, Martin O'Malley, picked up the challenge. His decision to make Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Baltimore's Book of 2002 could not have been more appropriate. Major cities around the country choose a new book each year for all their citizens to read.

The former mayor remembered being inspired by Douglass' story. If a slave could learn to read -- and then become a sublime literary stylist -- who could say that Mr. Schmoke's goal is out of reach for anyone?

"As a child," wrote one Baltimorean who had read another book on Douglass, "I hated reading until I read Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom. This book opened a whole new world for a young African-American."

Frederick Douglass' world expanded in Baltimore. He learned to read on the streets of Fells Point from his young friends, from a book called The Columbian Orator and from a woman whose family owned him. The creative stimulation and opportunities of a large city, available even to a slave, reinforced his own determination to be free. He became a man of letters, a freedom fighter, a champion of women's rights. He thanked Baltimore for its advantages, including the gift of literacy. He called it "the gateway to all my subsequent prosperity."

The first of Douglass' three autobiographies was printed in 1845, only seven years after he escaped to the North. He became a newspaper editor, an essayist and a great orator. He traveled widely and became a world figure, almost as well known as Abraham Lincoln, with whom he developed an extraordinary relationship.

When Douglass lived in Fells Point more than 150 years ago, he heard the clanking of slave chains outside the house where he lived on Aliceanna Street. He came across the word abolition, but had no idea what it meant -- until he read of abolitionism in the Baltimore American, a newspaper. Soon he would become one of the leading abolitionists in the nation, in demand as a speaker here and abroad.

He became one of the first men who made Baltimore a city that writes. Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Anne Tyler and others joined him in the front rank of this city's prose stylists. Much of what he wrote, he wrote elsewhere, but Baltimore will be forgiven if it claims him as a native son.

We honor his legacy by reading his work and by pursuing Mr. Schmoke's vision.

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