In advance of Saturday’s special event at Highland Beach Kenneth B. Morris, Sr., President of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, was kind enough to share a moving reflection of his adolescence spent with family members who spoke with and were embraced by America’s Pharaoh Dr. Frederick Douglass.
We thank Ken for this special glimpse into the abiding and trailblazing strength of his family’s heritage and contributions to building institutions which established the economic independence and self-determination of African-Americans.
My great, great grandfather, Charles Remond Douglass, named after the abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond, was the third and youngest son of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, born in 1844.
When Frederick Douglass began to assemble the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, he was proud to say that Charles was his first African American recruit to join-up to fight against the Confederacy during the Civil War in what had now become a struggle to end slavery. Having trained for battle, however, illness prevented Charles from participating in the assault on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, near Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
After the war, Charles tried to establish himself in a few careers without much luck. He found a government job at the Freedmen’s Hospital then he worked as a clerk at the Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington DC. In the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, Charles played right field and was an administrator for a DC baseball club called the Mutuals, who at that time, were one on the country’s best negro teams.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1893, however, when Charles purchased 40 acres on the shores of Chesapeake Bay that he found his niche in real estate. Charles subdivided the land and began developing the community of Highland Beach that later became an incorporated town where well-to-do African Americans would come to relax without fear of being harassed by whites. It was there at Highland Beach that Frederick Douglass dreamed of spending his final days, sitting in “the tower” at the top of his home along the shore, looking out across the bay to where he had once felt the lash of the overseer’s whip and where he had finally escaped the bonds of slavery.
I have fond memories of spending my summers in that house at the beach. When I was a little boy, I would sit in my great-great-great-grandfather’s chair in “the tower” and look across the bay to the land of his birth, which looked generations away.
My great-grandmother, Fannie Howard Douglass, or Grandmere as we called her, would sit down, put me on her knee, and with dramatic flair tell me about the first time she met Frederick Douglass as a little girl in Atlanta, Georgia.
Her father, David T. Howard, was born a slave and became one of the nation’s first black millionaires, owning and operating a mortuary business. When Frederick visited Atlanta, my great-great-grandfather Howard would pick him up at the train station in the fanciest horse-drawn carriage in town. Their very tall visitor, with a shock of white hair, made quite an impression on young Fannie.
From that day forward she began referring to him as “The Man with the Big White Hair” and did so until her death at the age of 103. She had no way of knowing at the time that she would grow up and marry his grandson, Joseph. When Grandmere and I were alone in “the tower,” she would point to the land on the other side of the Chesapeake and say, “That’s where Frederick lived as a slave when he was your age.”
I was too young to appreciate the significance of her stories at the time, but now that I am older, I realize how blessed I am to carry those memories today.
Unfortunately, Frederick Douglass’s dream of sitting in “the tower” was never realized. He passed away in 1895 a couple of months before the home was completed.