Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > The People of Talbot County Acquire a Treasure
Retirement is a little like death. Inevitably there are things you wanted to get done before it happens, intended to get done, that just flat don't get done.
But sometimes, if you're lucky, the retirement fairy floats down out of the wings, waves her tiny wand, and you get a second chance.
On March 24th, Celeste-Marie Bernier, Professor of United States and Atlantic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and Frederick Douglass scholar extraordinaire, gave a talk at the Talbot County Free Library. Though I am retired, I still spend as much time in that miraculous place as I can, so I was there that night. Sitting in the audience, reveling in the reach of this remarkable woman's remarkable mind, I suddenly realized said mind offered me the perfect opportunity to finish some unfinished business.
On one of my last vacations before I retired, Melissa and I took a driving tour of New England, a part of the country she knew well (Brown University), and I knew almost not at all (Washington & Lee). About halfway through the trip, we spent a delightful week with Claudine Weatherford and Timothy Wyant, longtime friends from our days in Northern Virginia who now live on a rocky, windswept island off the coast of Maine.
I'm guessing it was the third or fourth night after we arrived that it happened. We were at dinner, about two-thirds of the way through an excellent bottle of wine, and I was waxing long, if not eloquently, about all that the library was doing in collaboration with the Frederick Douglass Honor Society to celebrate Talbot County's most famous native son, when, suddenly, Timothy excused himself from the table.
When he returned, he was carrying an acid-free file. “This is something Claudine and I have been considering for a long time,” he said. He glanced at his wife, she nodded, and, handing me the file, he said, “We'd like to donate this to the Talbot County Free Library.”
I took the file from Timothy, opened it, and saw within a one-page letter, handwritten on nineteenth century foolscap. With a growing sense of wonder, I began to read:
Rochester - Oct. 15. 1858
The barrel of clothing sent to me at the instance of my friend dear Tappan for the needy fugitives who pass through my hands came safely, as did the six dollars which you thoughtfully sent to pay the freight and other expenses. I will be glad to distribute your bounty according to the benevolent wishes of your Anti Slavery Society. For one reason at least it is better to distribute clothing to those who are needy before they get to Canada. When they are on the way, they receive singly, and there is no chance for that bad feeling to rise, as when they are given out in a crowd and they are scrambled for.
Please thank the Ladies of the Hopkinton Anti Slavery Society for me, in behalf of the poor hunted ones.
I'm sure my hands were shaking when I closed that file. I do remember setting it on a table, well out of harm's way, as Timothy told me the letter had been passed down through his family and that he knew little of its provenance. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed, and after our return to Easton, we held a little ceremony with Timothy and Claudine in the library's Maryland Room to celebrate their generous gift.
Given the uncertain provenance, we decided it would be best to have the letter authenticated by an expert before we publicly announced its acquisition. While we were casting about for someone to perform this task, a member of our board who trades in rare books, maps, and manuscripts took a look at the document. From what he knew of Douglass's handwriting, he expressed reservations as to its authenticity. Still I held out hope. I couldn't imagine the Great Orator delegating the writing of such a document to a secretary in 1858, and found it even more unlikely that anyone back in those days would have bothered to forge such a thing. Turning, as we all do, to Google for assistance, I found plenty of examples of Douglass's handwriting and, while not all his signatures resembled that on our letter, some were pretty much identical. So I continued to search for an expert who could render a definitive verdict.
For a long time I carried on an email correspondence with a dealer in New England, who assured me he could tell us whether the letter was real or not. But when we got down to brass tacks, things got a little strange. At first I offered to fax him a photocopy of the document. He said he could make a provisional judgment based upon such a facsimile, but he would require the original document to issue a valid certification. He wanted me to mail him the letter, and tried to convince me that UPS or FedEx could easily and safely handle such a task. I had my doubts, and suggested I might drive the letter up there myself, but then suddenly, for no apparent reason, he stopped responding to my emails. I called, left messages on his machine, emailed again and again, but received no replies. Perhaps he had grown tired of my indecision, or, perhaps, something a tad more shady was afoot. So, in fits and starts (I really knew nothing about how to go about such a search), I began looking for another expert.
All of this ate up a surprising amount of time. I had, as always at the library, plenty of pressing concerns. The authentication of a letter that was safely stored in our temperature-controlled vault always seemed slightly less urgent than tasks that inevitably carried immediate deadlines in their train. Then my wife's health took a turn for the worse, and suddenly it seemed that the retirement she'd been urging on me for years now needed to happen quickly. So, in December of 2019, I officially left the library. And still the letter languished in our vault unauthenticated.
Which is where things stood till the night of the 24th. After her talk, I approached Professor Bernier—who has probably looked at more original Douglass documents than anyone but the Great Orator himself—and asked if she'd be willing to take a look at our letter. She willingly agreed, but the library was closing and her examination would have to wait till the next day. I wasn't present when the vault was finally opened for her, but the email I received from the good professor shortly thereafter made my heart sing:
“I'm absolutely delighted and overjoyed to confirm that there is no question in my mind that it is a letter written by Frederick Douglass in his own hand—as he said he had a 'picked up hand' and so his beautiful writing often varies and changes, often within the same document—and I am also overjoyed to confirm that it is a hugely vitally important letter. This is a very very very very rare and very very very powerful letter in which he is talking not only about receiving clothing for women, children and men travelling on the Underground Railroad but in which he is also explaining and advising how it is best to share the clothing—'singly' and not in a 'crowd' so there is not the pain and sorrow of a 'scramble.' I have never read this information before in any of his writings and so your beautiful letter is breathtakingly inspirationally significantly revealing regarding the practices and process of this liberation movement. It is also hugely significant because it provides categorical evidence—in Mr Douglass's own hand no less—that he was working directly with the white abolitionists the Tappans in his Underground Railroad liberation work, a hugely hugely hugely important revelation and one that promises to reveal more—I now feel I need to visit their archive!!! I'll delightedly undertake more research into this letter for you and immediately share whatever else I can find right away." And people call the Scots dour!
And so it is my great good pleasure to announce to the people of Talbot County that their library now safeguards a letter handwritten by Frederick Douglass himself, a letter that one of the world's preeminent Douglass scholars has labelled “hugely important,” inspirational, and revealing. For the first time since it was written, the letter will be available for public viewing at the library on this year's Frederick Douglass Day—Saturday, September 24th.
Some 164 years ago, perhaps by candlelight, Frederick Douglass dipped his pen in ink and slowly, carefully (both ink and paper were dear), began to scratch out a note to a generous friend. To look upon that document now, to follow the great man's thoughts and feelings (“the poor hunted ones”) as he makes his way, point by point, through the letter … it is a rare privilege indeed—one I am so glad the people of Talbot County will now have the freedom to enjoy.
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