Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Finding a Hero at the Talbot County Free Library
Truth be told, before we moved to Talbot County, Frederick Douglass was little more than a name to me. I knew he was a famous abolitionist, had an image of a rather stern-looking fellow with an impressive head of hair, but ... I don't know, with the exception of Lincoln, most of those Civil War politicians (on both sides of the conflict) looked like a lot of stuffed shirts to me. Which will show you just how low a little ignorance can take you.
But, twenty-some-odd years ago, Melissa and I had the great good fortune to move to the Eastern Shore, and, subsequently, Douglass began to edge—inch by inch—into my consciousness. For one thing, my wife, a Ph.D. historian, is no fool, and she was talking up Douglass's connection to our new home whenever and wherever she could. And then there was the historical marker I passed whenever I went fishing on the Tuckahoe: “Frederick Douglass, 1817-1895, Negro Patriot ... Was Born in Tuckahoe, Talbot County.” I always got a kick out of the antiquated language—“Negro Patriot,” as though there were some country called “Negro” whose flag one could salute and sing anthems to. Still, for me, Douglass remained little more than an interesting feature of local history in a part of the country that seemed chock-full of such features. I would study him further when, and if, I ever had the time.
Then someone floated the idea of placing a statue of Douglass on the courthouse lawn. It's hard to believe now that erecting a statue of Talbot County's most famous native son would once have been so controversial, but it was. And it probably tells us something about the power such public sculpture has in our lives. Generations had grown up with but one statue on that lawn, a statue that meant home to them, their place, their history. To erect a statue next to it of a man who had been the mortal enemy of all that their statue stood for ... well, it must have seemed a sacrilege.
As neutral ground, the library was soon hosting groups of people who wished to discuss the issue. I attended as many of these meetings as my schedule would allow, and, slowly but surely, doubt began to creep into some of the assumptions I'd been making about Douglass. In 1845, most Northerners had, at best, a limited and entirely abstract understanding of the conditions of Southern slavery. Then, that year, risking the very freedom he had fought so hard to attain, Frederick Douglass published his famous "Narrative," and for the first time put a human face on the peculiar institution.
Thinking about this, I decided to check out a copy of Douglass's modest, 86-page “Narrative” ... and found myself utterly blown away. Much of the writing done in America (and Britain) in 1845 sounds to the modern ear as if the authors were trying to show off. Why use a small word when three large ones will do? Read the introductions to the "Narrative" written by abolitionists of the time—Wm. Lloyd Garrison and the like—and you'll see what I mean. Then read Douglass's simple, commanding first paragraph. After I had read that paragraph, and all the beauties that followed, I found myself wondering if there was anyone else in mid-nineteenth century America, besides Abraham Lincoln, who was writing the sort of prose that would become the English of Clemens and Cather, Hemingway and Steinbeck.
This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of Frederick Douglass's birth. In 2011, his beautiful statue finally went up on our courthouse lawn. Since then, thanks to the efforts of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society and all the people who have worked so hard to educate poor ignorant souls like me, Frederick Douglass has long since ceased to be just another stuffed shirt and become one of my personal heroes. On Monday, May 14, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Thursday, May 17, at 2:30 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, I will host a discussion of the remarkable historical document that has come to be known as Douglass's “Narrative.” Once you've read it, I'm sure you'll agree with me that the historical marker referred to earlier got it entirely wrong. Frederick Douglass was, quite simply, an American patriot.
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