Plans to honor abolitionist prove divisive in Talbot Co.

County courthouse lawn is only for war memorials, not Douglass, council says

February 09, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON - The lawn of the county courthouse boasts a monument to Vietnam veterans and a statue honoring "The Talbot Boys," heroes of the Confederacy. Now, sponsors of a memorial to the county's most illustrious native, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, have been told that he does not qualify for a similar honor - because he was not a soldier.

Supporters in the Colonial capital of the Eastern Shore see the courthouse, a political hub since before Douglass was born nearby in 1818, as the only worthy site for his tribute. The jail where, as a young man, Douglass was held after an escape from bondage once stood next door.

But a divided Talbot County Council has shelved the proposal, pointing to an unwritten policy that reserves the lawn for memorials to the county's war dead. Council members suggested the library or a town park might be a better place to honor the famed orator and author.

The council's position has infuriated advocates of the courthouse site, where a memorial for 10 modern-day veterans who died in Vietnam shares the shady space with the monument to nearly 80 young men who fought against the Union.

"We have a Confederate soldier there at the top of a monument that represents the darkest period in American history," says Walter Black, who heads the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and is chairman of the county historical society's Douglass project.

"I grew up here, and I can't believe a statue of Frederick Douglass on the courthouse lawn would be offensive to anyone," Black says.

The courthouse is not the proper spot, says County Councilman Thomas G. Duncan.

"I think that ground is hallowed ground," Duncan says. "People there either served or died for their country. I'd support any other site in the county. There's no question Frederick Douglass was a great man."

County Councilman Philip Carey Foster is also holding firm to the tradition that reserves the lawn for war memorials, although no one seems to know its origin. He says talk of balance smacks of "political correctness." If anything, Foster says, the unwritten rule needs to be formalized to prevent disputes.

"The council is very supportive of a memorial for a man of his prominence, but the lawn is for war memorials," says Foster. "If the goal is to provide a fitting monument, there are alternatives."

Critics such as Moonyene Jackson-Amis, a first-term Easton town councilwoman, worry that the dispute with county lawmakers might fuel generations-old resentments.

"Douglass is the most significant Talbot native, white or black," says Jackson-Amis. "The clear issue is that the county doesn't want to give the man his due."

County Councilwoman Hope R. Harrington, who supports the courthouse site, says she has been unable to sway her colleagues since a public hearing in November. The Douglass project "seems to have been brushed under the table," she says.

"It isn't a dead issue; there is interest in having a statue at the library and naming the library for Douglass," Harrington says. "I'm only one vote, but the man was an orator, a statesman, a friend to six presidents. I don't know of another Talbot Countian who could approach that."

Joan Hoge, the former executive director of Talbot's 900-member historical society, took the lead two years ago in organizing the Douglass memorial project. Nearly 75 percent of tourists who visited the society's headquarters two blocks from the courthouse asked about Douglass, she says.

"It was obvious that there is very little left of his life here," says Hoge, who now works for the Historical Society of Delaware. "Easton is the right place, but I had hoped that controversy wouldn't overshadow the project and create division."

Talbot's historical society has developed a two-hour driving tour of the county, highlighting sites that include Douglass' birthplace near the crossroads of Cordova and the locations of plantations where he lived and worked before escaping in 1838.

The final stop on the tour is the courthouse, where on Nov. 25, 1878, Douglass - by then known throughout the world - delivered a paid speech in the main courtroom.

Officials in Easton haven't taken a formal position, but many in the business community see the Douglass project as a plus for tourism in the historic town center.

A more elaborate program outlining the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a leader in the Underground Railroad, has drawn national awards in neighboring Dorchester County, where Tubman was born into slavery.

"There are opportunities to present a larger picture of African-American history with Dorchester, a kind of core that makes visiting this area more worthwhile," says Alexander M. Bond, Easton's economic development manager. "Outside the heritage tourism gain, it's an opportunity as a community to bridge a divide."

The NAACP's Black, Jackson-Amis and other advocates say they will keep pushing for the courthouse site.

"It seems that this only became a policy when Frederick Douglass came up," says Black. "That's just not acceptable."

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