To make sense of history we often turn to books to help illustrate life in the past. But today we talk with someone who brings history alive by taking it to the streets — of Baltimore.
Historian and author John Muller gives us a preview of his walking tour: The Lost History of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass.
He believes the well-worn stories of the abolitionist’s loftier accomplishments don’t portray the true scope of the man he was.
TUNE IN: 9:30 AM @ Friday, December 4, 2020 -> WYPR (88.1 FM) “On the Record” features Douglassonian John Muller to discuss Frederick (Bailey) Douglass Walking Tour in Baltimore
Thank you to WYPR and “On The Record” for taking time to speak about the upcoming walking tours of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass in Baltimore, Sunday, December 13, 2020.
Interview will air Friday, December 4, 2020 at 9:30 AM (EST) on WYPR, 88.1 FM, out of Baltimore City.
Video: Jenny Masur: Heroes of the Underground Railroad Around Washington, DC (Prince George’s County Memorial Library)
Author Jenny Masur discusses her book Heroes of the Underground Railroad Around Washington, D.C., hosted by Misty Trunnell of the Oxon Hill Branch Library.
VIDEO: In memory of Linda Duyer of Salisbury, Maryland at the Church Street Mural Project (November 2020)
Thank you Don Rush of Delmarva Public Radio for recognizing our late friend Linda Duyer, who passed in November 2020.
The Passing of Local Historian Linda Duyer
(Nov 13, 2020)
Linda Duyer: In Memoriam (Part 1)
Linda Duyer: In Memoriam (Part 2)
By: Greg Bassett, Salisbury Independent (November 24, 2020)
Star Democrat, “Community discusses long-term vision for Frederick Douglass Park” [front page, October 28, 2020]
Residents gathered Oct. 24 at Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe to discuss a long-term developmental vision for the new park. Supporters debated what the open land — which could attract visitors from across the country once fully developed — should offer the public, while also honoring the legacy of one of the most prominent Black Americans in history.
Many floated the idea of walking trails while others wanted more ambitious projects, such as a replica village to visually display how Douglass grew up.
The meeting was the last public hearing before the master plan for the park will be presented to the Talbot County Council in February. The Design Minds, one of a group of designers for the park, spearheaded the meeting.
“Our goal is not to create static exhibits or a static experience, but one that continues to grow and allows people to contribute stories,” said Michael Lesperance, the principal of Design Minds. “Whether that’s somebody recollecting an ancestor talking about what life was like here then or about boats coming up the river — we can capture those stories and integrate them into the displays.”
Lesperance suggested incorporating Douglass’ influence on the local area, because the historical figure inspired free black communities such as Unionville. He also said information about Anna Murray-Douglass, Douglass’ wife, will be displayed. She grew up on the other side of the Tuckahoe River.
Residents came up with a list of ideas as well.
After discussing ideas in groups, community members presented them to each other. Some asked for a picnic area, an auditorium, an educational center that showcases videos about Douglass’ life, even informational panels and lunch areas for children to gather at on school trips.
Others vouched for trail accessibility to the Tuckahoe River and panels along the way, explaining what water sources were like back then.
Local history researcher Priscilla Bond Morris said there should be a balance between the personal stories and the land, and there could be a garden or a symposium added to the park.
“The natural landscape and the verbal stories — they go hand in hand,” she said. “There’s a balance to be met. There’s an international scope. You can come here if you’re a local for an event, but if you’re a Douglass scholar you can experience his formative years.”
Though proposals from residents were numerous and ambitious, Cassandra Vanhooser, the director of economic development and tourism for Talbot County, said they will be collected and analyzed before drafting the master plan. She added that “all ideas are welcome” at this stage, and that more ambitious projects could be phased in over time.
“Right now, we’re all just talking in concepts,” she said. “We’re all dreaming, and we should dream big. We got big sky, big land, big water — we should dream big.”
Vanhooser, who sits on the Park Advisory Committee with eight others, said the first step is the interpretive plan, which “tells the stories” in the park, and then the master plan, which will go into detail about locations and pathways for each amenity. After the master plan is approved next year, the committee will begin to examine funding and grants.
The park means a lot to Terrence Bailey Sr., a descendant of Frederick Douglass’ brother. He said there should be “marble steps and pillars” and interactive, state-of-the-art amenities.
“You put this up, you can guarantee people will come from far and wide,” he said. “If it’s not up to the standards of a man who was the face of abolition — “ he paused — “you know, if there was no Frederick Douglass, where would we be at now? There are no limits to what you can do with this land.”
Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe was officially established in 2018, on the 200th birthday of the influential black leader and abolitionist. Most of the 107-acre land on the Tuckahoe Creek, located just south of the town of Queen Anne, was acquired by Talbot County in 2006 with the help of a $1.8 million grant from the state.
Douglass, a leader of the abolitionist movement and a prominent author and activist, was born near Tuckahoe in 1818, and the park serves to commemorate his legacy.
Vanhooser was the brainchild behind using the acquired land to honor Douglass near his birth home.
“When I first came here, I was like, ‘Isn’t this where Frederick Douglass was born?’ I could see possibilities,” she said. “There’s a wonderful opportunity here. It’s a beautiful, beautiful space. This is a celebration of how far we have come, and the world is our oyster.”
Since it was announced in 2018, the park has had little development. COVID halted the master and interpretive plan process in the spring, which just resumed with the Oct. 24 meeting.
Preston Peper, the parks and recreation director for Talbot County, pointed to three panels along an asphalt road, overlooking the Tuckahoe Creek. He said the panels are the first additions to the park, but they will serve as a gateway to the master plan.
“These went up about a month and a half ago,” he said of the panels, which explain in detail Douglass’ life. “For a long time people would show up and there was nothing here. So the first step is the placeholder for these panels. Now we can get people thinking about these in proximity to” their ideas.
One resident protested the direction the committee was taking.
Local scholar John Muller, who has written books about Frederick Douglass including The Lion of Anacostia, said more of Frederick Douglass’ personal history should be told, not a “nursery rhyme history.”
“A complete story cannot be told when the complete story is not known,” he said. “There are not efforts to reach out to subject matter experts who have the expertise and knowledge of Douglass here on the Eastern Shore.”
Muller said there should be a direct connection from the park to Cedar Hill, Douglass’ estate in Anacostia in his later years. In the panels, the park notes other historical sites, including Cedar Hill, and connects them on the map.
Still, most of the residents gathered were enthusiastic for the new park. Dale Green, a descendant of Bishop Alexander William, who was a relative of Douglass, noted that the comments today were “impactful.”
Green, who sits on the advisory committee, said the finalized plan will incorporate big ideas.
“We learned that there are those who want to see a building, and those that want to see the water,” he said. “It’s important to understand all the different dynamics we heard from people today.”
Frederick Douglass addresses students at Washington City’s Charles Sumner School; including grand-daughter of Mount Vernon Mary E. Syphax and future husband of Mary Church Terrell (1874)
Following the American Civil War the movement to establish normal schools, colleges and universities of, for and by peoples of African descent in large part emanated from established private and public support networks out of Washington City from collective efforts of elected officials, Union generals, Northern philanthropists, reformist clergy and radical educators of African descent.
Within this distinctive culture and community of D.C.’s “aristocrats of color” was an inherited obligation and guiding responsibility to use their influence to reach back to uplift the children and grandchildren of the recently emancipated.
Among Black American elite families leading the charge to establish and endow a transformative public colored school system in Washington City were the Syphaxes of Mount Vernon and Arlington House, as well the multi-generational Douglass family.
The Douglass family, their patriarch Honorable Frederick (Bailey) Douglass along with his sons and daughters-in-laws, and the Syphax family, led by William Syphax (1825 – 1891) and Charles Syphax (1829 – 1885), worked together during the first generation of Washington City’s Public Colored Schools at all levels of support from attending examinations in school houses throughout the city to lobbying members of Congress for increased resources.
Following the American Civil War, Washington City’s Public Colored school system quickly became a shining “example for all the land” for the nation’s Freedman communities to emulate.
Building from an existing school house infrastructure established before and during the War for students of African descent, Washington’s colored schools had a long-established tradition of preparing homegrown talent, such as the fiery William Calvin Chase, who would became leaders within local and national circles, as well preparing students to light out into the larger country to make a lasting impact within communities of African-descended peoples by establishing schools, businesses, banks, newspapers and other institutions vital to Black American life.
Benevolence, political support and social investment in the city’s schools was not wanting from the leading families of Washington City from the Bruces to Cooks to Langstons to Shadds to Douglasses to Syphaxes.
With leading Black American scholars and activists at the head of the classroom, DC’s Colored Schools independently produced prodigious talent. Many of the first Black American graduates of this country’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities were either graduates of DC’s Colored Schools, or instructors within DC’s Colored schools, or both.
The Douglass grandchildren attended schools throughout the city, matriculating, alongside their groundbreaking classmates, to earn the first diplomas conferred by America’s Ivy League universities to scholars descended from the families of American enslavement. (Haley George Douglass attended DC’s Colored Schools before graduating from Harvard in 1905 where upon he taught, and coached football, at the M Street School (Dunbar) for generations.)
As their parents were respected within the communities of Old Anacostia, Barry Farm and Hillsdale as the founding teachers and administers of schools serving families from the Diaspora of American enslavement, the Douglass grandchildren were respected for their scholastic achievement in a competitive and meritorious classroom.
A frequent presence at school ceremonies, in 1874 Frederick Douglass offered remarks at a public examination of the Sumner School. In a letter to the New National Era “STYLUS” reported:
“The medals and diplomas were conferred on the scholars with appropriate remarks by Hon. Wm. Stickney, Pres. of the Council of the District of Columbia after which Hon. Frederick Douglass Sr. addressed the audience in a short and terse speech most congratulatory to the students.”
“Among the distinguished gentlemen present were Messrs Hon. Wm. Stickney, Z. Richards, Rev J. Sella Martin, Hon. Lewis Douglass, Editor of the “NEW NATIONAL ERA,” Hon. Frederick Douglass Sr., J. H. Brooks Esq., Geo. T. Downing, Prof. Sampson, Judge Garland of Texas, J. L. Venable Esq. Trustees Smith, Lewis, Pope, Rider, Marshal and Johnson and others.
The teachers and scholars are worthy of much praise for efforts in making this a success.”
Among the notable students participating in the Sumner School’s public examination in June 1874 was a grand-daughter of Mount Vernon, Washingtonian Mary E. Syphax (1859 – 1899), daughter of Charles Syphax (1829 – 1885), grand-daughter of Charles (1791 – 1869) and Maria Carter Custis Syphax (1804 – 1886), great grand-daughter of George Washington Parke Custis (1781 – 1857), great-great grand-daughter of John Parke Custis and great-great-great grand-daughter of Martha Washington (1731 – 1802).
Members of the respected Syphax family worked closely with Frederick Douglass to raise funds to establish and support the growth of DC’s Public colored school system. Members of the Syphax and Douglass families are well accounted for and represented within the ranks of graduates and faculty of Washington City’s public colored schools for generations.
The importance of the intersectionality, associations and contributions of these leading families has yet to be told.
After graduating Mary Syphax taught at the John F. Cook School, and in 1881 married at Rev. Francis Grimke’s 15th Street Presbyterian Church.
In January 1884 Rev. Grimke officiated the private wedding ceremony of Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts.
Tragically Mary Elinor “Mamie” Syphax Brodie passed after a short illness in December 1899 at the age of 40. She was survived by her husband and children.
We cannot overstate the historical significance and consequence of the service and examples set by these leading Black American families — the Douglasses and the Syphaxes — and what their contributions to the social fabric of this country in their time mean to us today.
JHM & JLM
Bishop Charles Henry Fowler, president of Northwestern University, compares Frederick Douglass to George Washington (‘Historical Romance of the American Negro,’ 1902)
Thousands of eminent men have arisen from the ranks of the colored race since 1865, and thousands are now upon their feet also. Their names have reached the ends of the earth. But Fred. Douglass was early in the field, and he was a very, very bright particular star.
Like John Bunyan, George Washington, and some few others, he shines for all time, and for the entire human race. He did a mighty work for God and humanity.
Of all those illustrious men who have been born of women, there has never arisen a greater man, in all the annals of time, than our congenial friend and brother, Fred. Douglass.
Did Frederick (Bailey) Douglass know Henry Van Meter, who saw Washington and served in the War of 1812?
As an intellectually curious child in tow with his grandmother travelling colonial dirt roads of the Tuckahoe the attention of Frederick Bailey was attuned to the history, customs and culture of his community.
Raised in his grandparents cabin, Isaac Bailey served as the first male father figure for a young Frederick. Throughout his life and across his public career, Douglass acknowledged and recognized the contributions of his elder forefathers.
Accustomed and acclimated to the company of Black American Patriots of the Revolutionary War and the Black Defenders of Baltimore, Frederick (Bailey) Douglass stepped forged and formed onto the national and international stage precipitously and deliberately influenced by men whose stories of sacrifices and contributions to the founding of this country history have mostly been forgotten today.
Frederick (Bailey) Douglass made sure America never forgot the contributions of these Black American Patriots while he had a say about it.
In February 1871, under the editorial guidance of Douglass, the New National Era ran an obituary for Henry Van Meter, “a Black Hero of the Revolution.”
A minor celebrity in his own time, due features in Harper’s Weekly and Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, Henry Van Meter was reportedly 110 years old or thereabouts when he passed in Bangor, Maine following the Civil War.
In a footnote to Lossing’s brief feature on Van Meter, there is this interesting note:
Henry remembered seeing Washington many times.
He was discontented, and wished to leave, notwithstanding his master was kind. He wished Henry to marry one of his slave girls, and raise children for him, offering, if he would do so, to order in his will that he should be made a free man at his death. “I didn’t like the gals,” said Henry, “and didn’t want to ‘wait for dead men’s shoes.’
So master sold me to a man near Lexington, in Kentucky, and there was only one log house in that town when I went there.” He was soon sold to one of those vile men engaged in the slave-trading business, who treated him shamefully. Henry mounted one of his master’s horses one night, and fled to the Kentucky River, where he turned him loose, and told him to go home if he had a mind to, as he didn’t wish to steal him. Some benevolent white people helped him on to the Ohio, and at Cincinnati, then a collection of houses around Fort Washington, he took the name of Van Meter, borne by some of the family of his kind master of the Shenandoah Valley.
Henry became a servant of an officer in St. Clair’s army, and served in the company, in the Northwest, with that commander and General Wayne. After the peace in 1795, he was living in Chillicothe, and came East with some Englishmen with horses, by way of Wheeling, to Philadelphia.
In the latter city some Quakers sent him to school, and he learned to read and write. When the war broke out he shipped as a common sailor in the privateer Lawrence, having previously been to Europe several times in the same capacity, and when cast into Dartmoor he held a prize ticket which was worth, when he got home, one thousand dollars. He let a captain have it as security for sixteen dollars. The man died of yellow fever in the South, and Henry never recovered his ticket.
Prior to the Civil War, Maine was an active state for the anti-slavery movement, as well as other reform efforts. Some notable citizens of Maine whom Douglass knew and/or worked closely with include, but not limited to, General Oliver Otis Howard, Secretary of State James G. Blaine and the politically influential Fessenden family.
While in bereavement over the death of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick spent time in the summer of 1883 in the resort community of Poland Spring, Maine. (You’ve likely had a bottle of water bearing its namesake.)
The decision of Douglass to run an obituary for Henry Van Meter is a deliberate recognition of the tradition and history of Black American Patriots who served and saved this country throughout its founding decades.
In the autumn of 1872, amidst the campaign season, a distinguished list of guests and dignitaries were invited by the Republicans of Fairfax County, Virginia to the barbacue, including Frederick Douglass.
As many scholars know, Frederick (Bailey) Douglass had a documented culinary affinity for Maryland biscuits, Maryland fried chicken and Eastern Shore pork.