The Douglass debate

February 11, 2004

IT APPEARS that 109 years after his death, Frederick Douglass is still a controversial figure in his native Talbot County. Plans to erect a statue of him in Easton, the county seat, have been stymied. Members of the County Council oppose putting a Douglass memorial on the courthouse green. Why? Because they believe the site should be reserved to honor war dead.

This is curious reasoning. The Eastern Shore county has no written policy about memorials, and many in Easton were apparently unaware of any unwritten policy. What's on the green now? A Vietnam War memorial and a tribute to the county's Confederate Army veterans. The existence of that second statue alone gives reason enough for a Douglass tribute. What are Talbot County visitors to think -- that the county more closely sympathizes with the goals of the Confederacy than with the abolitionist movement?

County Council President Thomas G. Duncan insists that he and other opponents want the statue. They just want it at the public library, a block away. They reason that because Mr. Douglass accomplished so much through learning -- rising from slave to famous lecturer and writer -- the library is a better fit.

Of course they couldn't be more wrong. Yes, Mr. Douglass' life is a testament to education and the American ideal, but it's far more than that. Better than anyone, he illuminated the hypocrisy of 19th century America -- a nation that claimed the principles of the revolution, liberty and equality, but permitted slavery. He was forerunner to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement -- and the women's rights movement, too. He tugged at the very conscience of the nation.

Consider, for instance, his famous "The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro" speech from 1852, in which he railed against the holiday's celebrations and parades, even its religious observances, as a "thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

One would hope manorial Talbot County would be more sensitive to the legacy of slavery, but irony of ironies, it's neighboring Dorchester County, home of the Cambridge race riots four decades ago, that now embraces its native abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, as a tourist attraction.

The passionate Mr. Douglass is not just a celebrity to be trotted out each February for Black History Month. Nor is honoring him a mere sop to black Americans. He was among the most important historical figures that Talbot County, the Eastern Shore, the state of Maryland, and the nation have produced. It's best we honor him where laws are made, a fitting reminder of our shared and sometimes painful history.

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