Posts Tagged Enoch Pratt Library
Brief note on Frederick (Bailey) Douglass & the Enoch Pratt Free Library; FBD knew Dr. Lewis Henry Steiner, founding Librarian of Enoch Pratt Free Library
As an adolescent Frederick Bailey ear hustled rudimentary academic instruction from the doorways at Wye House on the Eastern Shore to the alleyways of Fell’s Point in Baltimore City. As an adult he served on the boards of colleges and universities.
Having never attended a formal day of school in his life Dr. Douglass was regarded and respected by the most learned men and women of his era from college presidents to national legislators on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean before he was yet 30 years old.
Throughout his life Dr. Douglass aligned himself with radical Black Americans and radical European Americans who advocated for equal education, to use modern parlance. Anyone who openly supported and/or anyone who sought to aid in the education of Black Americans could count Dr. Douglass as an ally.
Part of the inspirational and aspirational story of the life of Dr. Douglass is his personal commitment to radical education across time and geography and institutions from Sunday schools to primary schools to the university to the modern American library.
Lost in the diabolical scandalmongering peddled by mythomanes is the street history of Dr. Douglass, a man of infinite real-world associations, connections and relationships. How the history and life work of Dr. Douglass connects to today has yet to be told more than a century after his passing due negligence, incompetence and state-sanctioned ignorance.
Dr. Douglass knew them all and they all knew Dr. Douglass.
In April 1879, in Frederick City, Maryland, United States Marshal Frederick (Bailey) Douglass lectured to benefit Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on 3rd Street, where several of his close friends had previously pastored. Speaking within today’s Brewer’s Alley, Douglass shared the stage with local pastors as well as local educators.
Specifically, Marshal Douglass shared the stage in Frederick with Dr. Lewis Henry Steiner, a local to the area and advocate for equal education.
Upon its opening in 1886 Dr. Steiner was the lead librarian of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Dr. Steiner, as well as other leadership and administrative staff of Enoch Pratt, knew Dr. Douglass.
Before the central branch re-opened and before the public health crisis I was applying pressure to the administration of Enoch Pratt Free Library to see how much they knew, or rather did not know, about the connections of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass to the library.
My correspondence with staff of the Enoch Pratt Free Library are all a matter of public record, as are the extant records of the library. I received a personal call after 8:00 PM one evening from a staff member thanking me for the continued pressure I was applying to the library leadership yet sharing that while the archival records I was seeking should exist they weren’t sure if they had them or where they may be. And that is how it be and why the history has been so utterly lost and mythologized by sustained public ignorance.
Frederick (Bailey) Douglass knew the founding leadership of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. He was active in supporting institutions in his native Baltimore until his passing. Upon its opening the Enoch Pratt Free Library was open to all. Dr. Douglass knew this and he knew those who made it so.
Do you think Frederick (Bailey) Douglass supported the Enoch Pratt Free Library? Of course he did.
Organizations within Frederick, the state and region who can aid in educating the public include Elizabeth Shatto with the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, John Fieseler with Visit Frederick, Drew Gruber with Civil War Trails, Frederick County Public Library, leadership of AARCH and others.
John Muller, author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C., and Ida Jones, archivist at Morgan State University, presented new research on Frederick Douglass at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Thursday, Feb. 28. The research centered around Douglass’ experiences as a young man in Baltimore and sought to fill in narrative holes regarding his life.
Douglass is known for his work on abolitionism, social reform and literary works. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and later changed his last name to Douglass at the suggestion of a member of the Underground Railroad who had harbored him during his escape from slavery.
Community member Derrick Camper noted that these personal details add to Douglass’ story as a historical figure.
“We always get this one thing about him, just like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Camper said. “But there’s more to him than what you read and see on T.V. There’s a person behind him.”
Muller and Jones’ research focused on other aspects of Douglass’ personal life, particularly his formative years in Baltimore. In his presentation, Muller told a story about Douglass’ purchase of a book in Baltimore, an event that may have been a catalyst for his later activism.
“When Douglass is about 12 years old, he buys the book The Columbian Orator. The Columbian Orator was a collection of essays and a very popular schoolbook of its day. There is a dialogue between a master and a slave in The Columbian Orator. Douglass talks extensively of how this book resonated with him and how important it was to his personal history,” he said.
According to Muller, the purchase of this book would not have been possible without the help of a little-known figure named Nathaniel Knight. Briefly mentioned in Douglass’ 1892 autobiography, Knight was a bookseller and prominent community member in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. By selling to books to Douglass, Knight was taking a big risk.
“This guy was breaking the law. Big time breaking the law,” Muller said. “He was a radical bookseller. This is a very radical action… He was supplying the black community with literature and a lot of other things, which he should not have been doing because it was illegal.”
Muller and Jones consider Knight just one of the many forgotten figures in what they call “the lost history of Frederick Douglass.” Jones said that it is necessary to understand the more quotidian aspects of Douglass’ life through his research. According to the researchers, this process has not been easy.
“African-American history has largely been an oral tradition,” Jones said. “Documentary evidence is lacking.”
As a result, scholars have had to rely heavily on Douglass’ autobiographies to study his personal life, which, though insightful, do not provide an all-encompassing chronicle.
However, having pored through many historical documents in their research, Muller and Jones have uncovered new information that adds texture to Douglass’ story.
“I found something in a newspaper from 1917, in which Richard Greener (the first black graduate of Harvard College) recalled a story that Frederick Douglass had told him about why he wore his hair the way he did,” Muller said. “The reason, according to Douglass, was that as a young man, possibly in Baltimore, he saw a picture of Alexander Dumas, the Afro-Franco writer. Douglass was struck by Dumas’ presentation as very unapologetically African, and Douglass adopted that hairstyle for his entire life.”
Jones added that these details and interesting facts bring Douglass’ story to life.
“When you’re able to find the historical records on various people that Douglass interacted with and people who had an influence on Douglass’s life, you get a sense of dimension to Douglass where he’s not only this lofty elder statesman but also a regular person,” Jones said. “He was a teenager. He did run the streets with the Fell’s Point boys. He lived a life similar to our own. It makes him much more relatable.”
Muller clarified that making Douglass more relatable in no way tarnishes his legacy. On the contrary, Muller asserted that by moving past the mythologized version of Douglass, one could begin to examine the tangible impact he had on people of his day. Muller said that Douglass spoke to benefit churches, night schools, scholarship funds and orphanages. For Douglass, it was not only about making grand speeches and writing letters to President Abraham Lincoln but also doing little things to help people in his community.
Jones said that the mythologized version of Douglass remains deeply ingrained in people’s psyche. When asked about what she thought of his legacy, Jones acknowledged this.
“Douglass became a paragon of what’s possible as an African American,” she said. “But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Mythologized figures are essential to how we think of ourselves as Americans. Figures like Douglass inspire us to stand up for what we know is right, whether it be in the fight against racism, sexism, inequality or any other injustice.”
“The Lost History of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass in Baltimore” @ Enoch Pratt Central Library –> Thurs, February 28, 2019 at 6:30 PM
John Muller, author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia and Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent, will present “The Lost History of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass in Baltimore” using newly discovered information found in the Baltimore City Archives, Maryland Historical Society, Enoch Pratt Free Library, and private archives. Muller has presented widely throughout the DC-Baltimore metropolitan area at venues including the Library of Congress, Newseum, Politics and Prose, American Library in Paris and local universities. He is currently working on a book about the lost history of Frederick Douglass on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
John Muller will be in conversation
with Dr. Ida E. Jones, Morgan State University Archivist.
Writers LIVE programs are supported in part by a bequest from The Miss Howard Hubbard Adult Programming Fund.
Thursday, February 28 at 6:30pm
Central Library, African American Department
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201