Thanks to his fourth-grade teacher, Thelma Jones, Walter Black knew that Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County. Tuckahoe to be specific.
You must be proud of that, she instructed.
Born a slave, Douglass became an international leader of the abolitionist movement, a writer, an orator, an influential adviser to Abraham Lincoln and a champion of women’s rights.
Black grew up an observer of the nation’s glacial progress toward Douglass’ goals. Keenly aware of every hopeful move toward justice, Walter Black found himself with an opportunity, in his 70s, to follow through on what he thought of as Thelma Jones’ challenge.
Years earlier, Black had come to think of Douglass as his “homeboy.”
This week, as a member of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, Walter Black will welcome the world to Frederick Douglass Day, 24 hours of fun, food, education and yet another celebration of the relatively new Frederick Douglass memorial statue on the Talbot County Courthouse lawn.
When the statue was first unveiled in 2011, Black reached a personal milestone.
“It was the most rewarding moment in my life,” he says. “The whole county, whites and blacks, turned out to celebrate something we did for Talbot County and humanity.”
Some had wanted the dynamic Douglass statue elsewhere, hoping to preserve the courthouse lawn to veterans — especially veterans of the Civil War.
Black, the Douglass honor society and the NAACP joined “Fred’s Army” to keep the pressure on.
“It had to be in the most prestigious spot,” Blacks says. That happened, finally, when the county council changed from 3-2 against the courthouse location to 3-2 for. Douglass is portrayed in refulgent beard, right arm raised in an orator’s gesture.
The image stands on a stone that says simply, DOUGLASS.
I had written earlier this month about the statue controversy but lost track of the story. I left the outcome hanging in my Sept. 8 Daily Record column. I also erred in failing to include Samuel Chase as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
So I went back to Easton this week to catch up.
‘People are intelligent’
Black and Debbie Dobson, former head of tourism in Talbot County, walked me through the history and the Douglass events planned for this weekend.
Some may yet harbor opposition to Fred’s return, but many others applaud Black’s homeboy and Talbot County’s famous son.
“People are intelligent,” Dobson says. “They want the whole story, not just bits and pieces. When you know what Douglass’ life was like,” she says, “you know that anything is possible.”
As for his own life, Walter Black says the last few years have helped to overcome the negative feelings engendered growing up in a segregated world. In many cities and towns, blacks had to sit in the movie house balcony. Even that was barred to blacks in Easton.
The Douglass memorial helps to make amends. It seems more prominent than the Talbot County Boys, which honors local soldiers who fought for the Confederacy.
In many parts of the country memorials like this one have been removed. In Easton, with the arrival of Douglass, it provides what some have called a teachable moment: a discussion of history involving both sides.
Black says one thing at a time.
“It doesn’t mean the (removal) issue won’t be revisited. It will be. There’s no reason to keep something that stood for slavery,” he said, speaking as a member of the NAACP.
What he cares about now, though, is the opportunity for more people to know what fourth-grade teacher wanted him and others to know. The statue is a grand invigorating symbol — a teachable moment in itself.
You can put your hands on history now. You can walk in Douglass’ shoes. His presence is all around,” Walter Black said.
C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.