In the decades before and after the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was among the most influential Americans of any race. Throughout 2018, Talbot County, Maryland, is hosting events honoring the bicentennial of this native son and exploring the culture that shaped his life.
The work of this galvanizing African American orator encompassed writing, publishing, activism, and business in the United States and United Kingdom, and government posts in the U.S. and the Caribbean. He was the most photographed American of the 19th century.
And while his network of colleagues included presidents, religious and social leaders, and prominent authors, throughout his life he drew strength from the challenges of his early years in Talbot County — today the site of multifaceted celebrations of his birth. These include the dedication of a new 100-acre park to inspire generations to come.
Born into slavery, never knowing his father and separated from his mother as a child, Douglass managed to learn to teach himself to read and write, which led to his becoming one of the most powerful and influential speakers of his day. He was not only an antislavery advocate, but a clarion voice for women’s rights and educational causes. “Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color, God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren,” was the motto of a newspaper he owned and published.
At the height of his fame, in his final two decades, he returned to Talbot County four times.
“When one has advanced far in the journey of life,” he wrote in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, “when he has seen and traveled over much of this great world, and has had many and strange experiences of shadow and sunshine, when long distances of time and space have come between him and his point of departure, it is natural that his thoughts should return to the place of his beginning, and that he should be seized with a strong desire to revisit the scenes of his early recollection, and live over in memory the incidents of his childhood.”
Modern visitors may replicate aspects of those journeys through self-guided driving and walking tours and other activities, which may be found at FrederickDouglassBirthplace.org. Throughout 2018, Talbot County will celebrate and explore Douglass’s legacy through readings, lectures and reenactments, culminating in Frederick Douglass Day, Sept. 22 in Easton.
The bicentennial also marks the 140th anniversary of an 1878 Easton trip that included addresses at two black churches, a speech before a racially mixed audience at the county courthouse, and an expedition to locate his birthplace and the site of his grandmother’s cabin. He collected soil to carry to Cedar Hill, his new home in Washington, D.C., which is today a national historic site.
In a way, he was designated for greatness by his mother . She named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey — with one middle name from the first Roman emperor and the other from the first American president. He chose the surname Douglass at about age 20, upon beginning his new life with his wife in the North, after escaping the bonds of slavery.
Today, travelers to Talbot County may see through a series of four self-guided driving tours the rich landscape and vibrant waterways that inspired the young Frederick Bailey. “The squirrels, as they skipped the fences, climbed the trees, or gathered their nuts, were an unceasing delight to me,” Douglass wrote of his childhood. “The mill-pond, too, had its charms; and with my pin-hook and thread-line, I could get amusing nibbles.”
The tours include the Talbot County port town of St. Michaels, which is filled with Douglass sites. The St. Michaels Museum at St. Mary’s Square hosts regularly scheduleda guided walking tours, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum interprets his story at the Mitchell House, and there is a small historical marker in a small Frederick Douglass Park on Talbot Street.
Scholars believe The Hill in Easton is the oldest community still in existence in the nation continuously inhabited by free persons of color. It encompasses the two churches where Douglass spoke in 1878, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal and Asbury United Methodist, and is an active center of archaeological activity. The self-guided driving tours maycan be found online at FrederickDouglassBirthplace.org.
Douglass-related activities in Talbot County this year include the bicentennial week in February, which features the groundbreaking ceremony for athe new 107-acre park.
Douglass’ first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, begins, “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.”
The park — named Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe — is located just upstream from the farm where Douglass was born and will provide a place to explore his life and legacy. In addition to interpretive panels and trails, the park will feature a scenic overlook with sweeping views of the Tuckahoe watershed and landscape.
“The Tuckahoe is beautiful and today looks much as it would have in Douglass’s youth,” says Jennifer Williams, president of the Talbot County Council. “We are excited about the opportunity to tell this story in a more meaningful way.”
The 66.96-acre property was purchased in 2006 with $1.8 million from Maryland Department of Natural Resources Program Open Space. The family of George C. and Naomi H. Moore donated another 40.2 acres of wetlands adjacent to this parcel in 2011, bringing the total to 107.16 acres. The Moore family will also be honored by Talbot County for their generous donation, as wetlands will be named the George C. and Naomi H. Moore Nature Preserve.
Douglass events continue throughout the year, with such activities as Juneteenth on June 16th— a festive celebration of a celebration. Juneteenth marks the occasion in 1865 when African Americans in Texas learned they had been liberated by the end of the Civil War.
The largest event is Frederick Douglass Day in September. For more information about Douglass, visit FrederickDouglassBirthplace.org.