TUNIS MILLS — The weather could not have been more ideal for the outdoor event celebrating Frederick Douglass and his legacy.
The fair and sunny, cloud-dappled Sunday, May 21, seemed to mirror the upbeat tone of the event at the historic Wye House, where a young Frederick Bailey, born in Talbot County, spent 18 months working on the property.
The juxtaposition of the past institution of slavery Douglass chronicled in his famous autobiography and the elegant plantation on the Wye River provoked thoughtful reflection from benefactors who purchased $100 tickets to attend.
The intent of the two-hour event titled “Bear Me into Freedom” was to raise funds for the Frederick Douglass Honor Society’s Scholarship Fund. Two scholarship recipients from Talbot County were on hand to tell the crowd numbering at least 200 about their educational journey and future plans.
Some 150 seats were set up under a large white tent, and dozens stood around the perimeter of the tent.
“This event is marvelous,” said Dale Glenwood Green, professor of Architecture and Historic Preservation at Morgan State University. “It's great to see so many that have come out to support the scholarship and preserve the legacy of both the Wye House and Frederick Douglass. People are coming from everywhere.”
“Whenever we can tread on the hallowed grounds of the places where African Americans have made significant contributions is always incredible. It’s always a visceral experience," Green said. "And this place is literally, literally an artifact of that history, so we're all fortunate to be able to come here, especially since it's private (property). To have these public events really makes for an incredible opportunity.”
Mistress of Ceremonies Dana Bowser, director of student retention and success at Chesapeake College, introduced Brenda Wooden, president of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, and hosts Richard and Beverly Tilghman, owners of Wye House. Richard Tilghman is a direct descendant of Edward Lloyd, who acquired the original property in 1659.
“You know, Frederick was here as a little boy between the ages of about 6 and 8,” Tilghman said. “And I’ve hearkened back quite often to the beginning of his autobiography where he talks about walking 12 miles with his grandmother, from Tuckahoe to Wye House, down the farm lane — where all of you drove today — to be dropped off by his grandmother, never see her again. And I think about the role that my ancestors had in a lot of this. A long time ago, I came to grips with the fact that my family owned slaves. And I say to people, 'I can't do anything about that,' but I can do something today about that.”
The audience applauded, and Tilghman went on to share how the example of his parents left him with a legacy that inspires him to “do what I can do to promote the kind of relationships that we have here today. This is really important to us,” he said.
Wooden thanked Tilghman and said that his and his wife’s hospitality “is just an example of the work that we are doing. No matter what we may hear out in the world, on the news or on Twitter, there is progression being done. There is reconciliation that is being brought forward. There is good work being done not only in Talbot County and the Eastern Shore, but throughout America.”
Wooden reminded the crowd of Douglass’ “passion for education and literacy (that) brings us here today.”
“Frederick Douglass has been and continues to be a source of inspiration and hope for millions of people around the world,” Wooden said. “(He) believed in integrated and universal education, encouraged forms of moral responsibility that are very essential to the civil life and responsible behavior. He believed that there's power in the human mind, but education is needed for its development.”
“Everyone here today is guiding our high school students to become tomorrow's successful and responsible citizens,” Wooden said.
Kitty Bayh, founder of the $711.66 Endowment, encouraged the audience to contribute to the fund and help college students with their education.
“It's bittersweet, isn't it, to be on this hallowed ground, the ground which was the beginning of Frederick's suffering, but also the ground of redemption, thanks to the Tilghman family?” Bayh asked.
Bayh, who lives on the Eastern Shore, touched on a theme echoed by others who spoke, which was the role of women in shaping his life: “One who freed his 9-year-old mind, and the other who freed him when he was 28 years old from what he called that ‘dark infestation’ of slavery,” she said.
The two women were Sophia Auld, “more akin to a mother than a slaveholding mistress,” who taught him to read, and Anna Richardson, “an English Quaker who met Douglas through his trip through Great Britain and Ireland in 1846, and who raised the 150 pounds sterling to buy his freedom,” Bayh said.
“And so I wondered, how can I join the sisterhood of these two women, Sophia and Anna?” Bayh said. “And more to the point, I've asked myself, what might I have said to Anna Richardson if she had asked me for a donation to support Frederick Douglass’ ransom from slavery? Might I have demurred, 'Oh, I already give to feeding ministries, literacy programs and mental health — things that were my own passions.' But what a glorious opportunity I might have passed up to be part of something so huge.”
Bayh said she and her late husband, Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, realized the only appropriate donation to the Frederick Douglass Honor Society was “150 pounds sterling, or the 1864 equivalent, which was $711.66,” that purchased Douglass’ freedom.
“We wanted not so much to give as to join to join the legacy of these two women, these two abolitionists who emancipated Frederick Douglass’ mind, body and soul,” Bayh said. “They set our imaginations on fire.”
Photographer and writer Jeff McGuiness of St. Michaels is the author of “Bear Me Into Freedom: The Talbot County of Frederick Douglass.” He and his wife Dorie sold the $40 photographic essay during the event, and his photographs were displayed in Wye House’s Orangery.
The book represents five years of his work exploring, researching and photographing the land Douglass walked during his 11 years of bondage in the county.
Scholarship recipients Jaylen Howie and Tyler Redman shared their educational journey and future plans with the audience. The Honor Society has awarded $45,000 in scholarships since 2017.
Teaching artist Baba Bomani delighted the audience with his upbeat and interactive hip hop renditions of Douglass’ life and influence.
Another highlight was a roundtable discussion with Celeste-Marie Bernier, Frederick Douglass scholar, chair of United States and Atlantic Studies at the University of Edinburgh and author of 85 books, essays, and digital educational resources; Bill E. Lawson, Frederick Douglass scholar, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Memphis; Kim F. Hall, Lucyle Hook Professor of English and African Studies at Barnard College; textile artist Vera P. Hall, and Kenneth B. Morris Jr., co-founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington.
Morris said he had two reasons for feeling “really emotional this afternoon.”
“We're not that far removed from the history of slavery,” he said. “And so I'm really emotional this afternoon to be here, and standing on this hallowed ground where the DNA of my ancestors and their blood is drenched into the soil.”
“And when I talk about my family, I get emotional as well because they were a radical, intergenerational freedom fighting collective,” Morris said. “It was not just about Frederick Douglass — it was about the family. And I am just as proud of Anna Murray Douglas, my great-great-great grandmother, as I am Frederick, because there would be no Frederick Douglass without Anna in his life.”
Morris and the panelists catalogued the valor and love of Douglass’ wife, to whom he was married for 44 years.
Photos of the couple’s five children and some of their 21 grandchildren were displayed as large posters with biographical information on the lawn.
“She was a radical freedom fighter in her own right, and she worked alongside Frederick as an equal partner in the struggle for freedom," Morris said. “She was a radical feminist, and it's been a long-standing lament in my family that she has not been treated with the dignity and respect that she deserves in history.”
Bernier was even more pointed. “Anna Murray Douglass was the strategic leader, the architect, the visionary, the fundraiser, the brilliant military general, whose one best friend was Harriet Tubman, who was the architect, imaginer and creator of Frederick Douglass' self-liberation.
“It is a pain, it is a disrespect, it is a dehumanization, how she is mis-remembered, dishonored, disrespected in the 21st Century. She was, is and will forever be a queen and a legend,” Bernier said as the audience cheered and applauded.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.