Read: The four possible timelines for life returning to normal
Douglass pointed to Genesis and its story of creation, destruction, and revival to grapple with the meaning of Lincoln’s victory and the prospect for emancipation. He was not merely connecting with a black church audience; he reached for ancient wisdom to find a sense of sacred transformation amid the profane violence of war and the sordid practices of politics. He mixed the voice of the Hebrew prophets with his own. He told the packed pews that he discerned signs in the election of a “redeemed and purified nation,” not unlike Noah seeing green land. Douglass announced as well in the Rochester church that he planned in the following week to return for the first time to Baltimore, Maryland, the city from which he had escaped slavery in 1838.
On November 1, 1864, the state of Maryland adopted a new “free Constitution,” abolishing slavery in a referendum by the narrow margin of 30,174 to 29,799. Douglass made his dramatic return to Baltimore on the 16th, with reporters in tow. He addressed a primarily black crowd at a standing-room-only gathering at the Bethel AME church in Fells Point, the neighborhood on the harbor where he had come of age.
As he arrived, Douglass encountered a woman who introduced herself as his sister, Eliza Mitchell. They two had not seen each other in 28 years. Older than Frederick by seven years, Eliza had traveled the 60 miles from Talbot County on the Eastern Shore to see her famous brother. She had managed to purchase her freedom in 1844 and raised nine children, one of whom she named Mary Douglass Mitchell, in honor of her long-departed sibling. The contrasts at the church that day were joyous and achingly poignant. Eliza, her husband, and all nine children had worked in menial jobs in a slave society in order to live, while Douglass had become a citizen of the world. To fathom the meaning of freedom for former slaves, we have to see into both of those experiences.
Douglass took the pulpit at Bethel surrounded by American flags, as a choir sang “Home Sweet Home.” Unavoidably, in a three-hour address, the former slave made himself central to the story. As in Rochester earlier, he harkened back to Noah and Genesis. This time, though, he declared himself the dove, and therefore the messenger of renewal. “The fact that I am where I am is really the subject,” he said. This time he was himself the “sign” on the dark clouds. “The return of the dove to the ark, with a leaf,” Douglass said, “was no surer sign that the flood had subsided from the mountains of the east, than my coming among you is a sign that the bitter waters of slavery have subsided from the majestic hills and fertile valleys of Maryland.”
With such audacity, Douglass inserted himself into the story of Genesis, and brought with him his people and his country. He rhapsodized about how in 1838 he had escaped from a “doomed city,” but now returned to “greet with an affectionate kiss the humblest pebble from the shores of your glorious Chesapeake.” Douglass called the occasion a “day of wonders” that he “hailed with the joy of an exiled son.” Freedom could change everything, at least for a while, in a tear-filled church of memory. Americans love a redemption story, and Douglass surely knew he embodied one.