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Douglass statue arrives in Talbot County after years of debate

EASTON — Abolitionist Frederick Douglass is finally getting a homecoming celebration in his native Maryland county with a statue honoring him, after years of work by local residents to recognize him in a prominent place — on the same courthouse grounds where he gave a speech in 1878 and where a monument to local men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War now stands.

For supporters who have worked on the project, it’s a long-overdue monument to an important American, and they view the diversity of people supporting the effort as a sign of how far race relations have come in a county where the location of the statue stirred debate as recently as the last decade.

“I think it shows how this community has changed from a time when black people weren’t allowed to even be on the courthouse lawn, and now we have a monument to a black man who was one of the most prominent figures of the 19th century,” said Eric Lowery, president of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, which worked on bringing the monument to Easton. “It’s truly a community project.”

Douglass is easily Talbot County’s most famous former resident. His autobiography, which was published in 1845, was a best-seller that helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

Still, even after so many years, the county has been deeply divided on how to honor him. The courthouse lawn already has two memorials. One is for Vietnam veterans. The other is for the “Talbot Boys,” local men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Veterans groups opposed putting a Douglass statue on the site, because they said the lawn was reserved for military dead. They recommended a library or school as more appropriate, but the opposition hurt black residents, particularly because one of the monuments honored people who fought for the Confederacy.

Now, signs throughout Easton’s historic district read “Douglass Returns” under an image of the gray-bearded abolitionist, as the Eastern Shore town prepares for days of events leading up to Saturday’s unveiling.

“I think he’s returning in a way that when he was here he was not able to be truly here, so now, by coming back as this statue portrays, we’ve given him the proper position in the community,” said Eleanor Shriver, executive director of the Historical Society of Talbot County.

Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 1817 or 1818. He went on to become an author, speaker, abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. The courthouse location is particularly important to supporters, because Douglass delivered his “Self-Made Men” speech at the courthouse in 1878.

Local tourism officials believe the statue will be an additional draw for a region rich in history. Harriet Tubman, who led hundreds of slaves to freedom during the Civil War, also was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and state officials have been working to design an Underground Railroad National Historic Park in neighboring Dorchester County.

Deborah Dodson, director of tourism for Talbot County, said there is a strong market for travelers looking for authentic historic sites.

“The families that visit here are very interested in teaching their children about our nation’s history and the prominent people that made our nation what it is today, and on another different side of that, the reason why we really reach out to these types of visitors is because the cultural heritage tourist spends far more money than leisure travelers — I think often times because they are more affluent,” Dodson said.

Douglass’ birth place is about nine miles outside of Easton. University of Maryland archaeologists are excavating a plantation also about nine miles from town where Douglass lived for several years in the mid-1820s.

Easton officials have talked about putting a Douglass statue up for about 10 years. After debate, the county council voted in 2004 to allow the statue to be built, but an effort to build it stalled. The Frederick Douglass Honor Society sparked up interest again in 2009, with the goal of having the statue raised in 2010, the town’s 300th anniversary. But the sculptor needed more time.

Local residents walking by the courthouse this week described the monument as a long overdue tribute to a famous and important former resident.

“Our little town had a famous person who did a lot of good, so we’re celebrating his good works,” said Dyanne Welte.

But some had mixed feelings about the statue, because it has taken so long to put one up to honor a person who has long been very clearly an important figure in American history.

“They should have done this a long time ago,” said Michael James, an African American who has lived in the town for 38 years.

Many in the town are excited the statue has finally come to Easton. A gala celebrating this weekend’s unveiling scheduled for Friday night in Easton sold out almost instantly. Gov. Martin O’Malley is scheduled to speak at the unveiling on Saturday.

“The town has been intimately involved in the statue effort for many years,” said Robert Karge, the town manager.