The water under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge whipped against itself, the wind lifting up handfuls of foamy white and slapping them back down. The sky was a pearly blue, and thick, milky clouds hung above us like bulging lanterns. As we passed over the bridge—4.3 miles connecting Maryland’s eastern and western shores—I rolled down the windows and pulled back the sunroof. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the feeling of wind rolling over my fingers; the feeling of my entire family singing along at the top of our lungs to my children’s favorite Disney songs.
It was the first time since sheltering in place had begun, almost three months earlier, that my family was all together in the car for an extended period of time. We’d packed our masks, our sandwiches, and more Ritz Crackers than anyone was physically capable of eating. One never knows how traveling any meaningful distance with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old will be, so my wife and I had emotionally prepared ourselves for tantrums and tears. But our children were well behaved, perhaps themselves simply grateful to be anywhere other than inside our home. They too seemed to relish the wind rushing past their faces.
“It is always a fact of some importance to know where a man is born, if, indeed, it be important to know anything about him.” So wrote Frederick Douglass in his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. I had been spending time with Douglass’s work for several weeks, hoping that reengaging with his writing might help me more fully understand how our country had arrived at this moment. A moment in which a global pandemic has torn away the veil and revealed the deepest fissures and failures of America’s promise to its most vulnerable. A moment in which people of all generations and races have taken to the streets to demand an end to state-sanctioned violence. A moment in which the statues of white men who paved the way for genocide and fought to defend slavery are being taken down by cheering crowds. A moment in which Black lives matter has moved from a phrase laden with controversy to language at the center of our public discourse. A moment filled with rage, reckoning, and possibility.
It was with these reflections and Douglass’s words in mind that, on Juneteenth, I got in the car with my family and drove from our home, outside Washington, D.C., to Talbot County, Maryland, where Frederick Douglass was born.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass described the region of his childhood with revulsion. He called it “thinly populated, and remarkable for nothing that I know of more than for the worn-out, sandy, desert-like appearance of its soil, the general dilapidation of its farms and fences, the indigent and spiritless character of its inhabitants, and the prevalence of ague and fever.” He went on to say that the area was “seldom mentioned but with contempt and derision” and that, living there, he was “surrounded by a white population of the lowest order.”
In 1878 Douglass returned to the county, and visited the farm that had once been owned by his master, Aaron Anthony, a man who may have also been Douglass’s father. His grandmother’s cabin had stood there. It was a place that had “few pretensions,” Douglass wrote. “To my child’s eye, however, it was a noble structure, admirably adapted to promote the comforts and conveniences of its inmates.” But it was gone now.
What did remain was an old cedar tree Douglass recalled from his boyhood. When he saw it, according to Dickson J. Preston in Young Frederick Douglass, he declared that he had found the exact spot where he had been born. Douglass stood under the tree in silence, and then plunged his hands into the earth to scoop up handfuls of soil to bring back to Cedar Hill, his home in Washington. At an event at the Talbot County Courthouse that evening, he told the audience he had collected “some of the very soil on which I first trod.”
It felt particularly important to visit the county of Douglass’s birthplace on a day meant to celebrate the emancipation of Black Americans from bondage. According to the historian and Douglass biographer David W. Blight, Douglass “viewed emancipation as the central reference point of black history” and felt that the nation “had no greater turning point.” As Blight put it, Douglass believed Emancipation Day “ought to be a national celebration in which all blacks—the low and the mighty—could claim a new and secure social identity.”
With two toddlers, I was cognizant of the fact that I would not be able to gradually trek through every place in Talbot County that had a meaningful association to Douglass. My family’s public-history tour schedule was dictated by nap times and diaper changes. But there was one place in particular I knew I wanted to visit: the courthouse where Douglass had spoken nearly a century and a half earlier.
We pulled up to the Talbot County Courthouse and walked across the lawn to a large statue. The bronze rendering of Douglass stands atop an octagonal pedestal etched with his name. Douglass is captured mid-speech, his mouth ajar, his eyebrows raised in a spirited fervor. His left hand rests on a lectern. His right hand is lifted into the air, his fingers bending back toward his body. His long, thick hair is pulled into the style so familiar from pictures of Douglass, the most photographed American of the 19th century.
While Douglass is known to have spoken outside the courthouse, it is also where he was held in a jail cell for two weeks after attempting to escape from slavery 42 years earlier. In the 19th century, enslaved people were sold on the courthouse’s front steps.
Douglass’s statue was not the only one in front of the courthouse. Across a cinnamon pathway splitting the lawn in two was a statue of a young man with a soft, boyish face wearing a brimmed hat. His hands were wrapped around the staff of a flag, the bronze cloth cloaking his shoulder. While my family and I stood in front of Douglass, others came to pose for photos with this statue. They did not take photos of or with Douglass, perhaps because they were attempting to practice social distancing, or perhaps because they had no interest.
I wasn’t familiar with the person standing on top of this pedestal, and though I assumed it was an American flag draped over his shoulder, I couldn’t quite make it out. After a woman and a young man had finished taking photos, I approached to get a closer look. Engraved on the front of the stone pedestal was:
It did not take me long to understand what C.S.A. stood for, and to understand that the flag this young man was holding was not the American flag.
The Talbot Boys were 84 local soldiers in the Confederate States Army; their names are carved into the sides of the stone base. The statue, I would later learn, was erected in 1916, more than half a century after the end of the Civil War and during a period when the majority of Confederate monuments were built. These memorials were an effort to honor Confederate veterans, who were dying off in large numbers—to teach younger white southerners about the war and that this generation of men should be venerated. They were also a physical symbol of white supremacy, an ornament in the landscape of Jim Crow meant to terrorize Black communities. In 2015, the Talbot county council voted unanimously against removing the statue; soon after my visit, however, the council president would introduce a resolution to take it down.
I looked up at the statue, its bronze body glimmering under the sun, and then back at Douglass, about 20 yards away. My son was running in circles under the shade of a large oak tree while my daughter toddled after him. I thought of what it meant to have Frederick Douglass share the courthouse lawn with the names of 84 men who fought to keep people like him in bondage.
The Douglass statue was approved by the county council in 2004, but it was not immediately installed. It took several years of deliberation and debate to decide how the statue should be erected—resulting in a policy that the Douglass statue, and any other new statues on the lawn, could not be taller than the Talbot Boys statue. When Douglass’s statue was finally installed, in 2011, many were glad to see it erected and thought it might balance out the Talbot Boys monument. But there is no balancing out those who fought to perpetuate slavery with those who spent their lives working toward its demise.
Douglass himself was keenly aware that the story of slavery, the story of the war, and the story of emancipation were at risk of being told in ways shaped by southern postwar propaganda rather than truth. As Blight put it, Douglass knew that historical memory was not determined simply by the passage of time; rather, “it was the prize in a struggle between rival versions of the past, a question of will, of power, of persuasion.”
On May 30, 1871, just six years after the Civil War ended, Douglass gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. “We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism,” he said,
to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember, with equal admiration, those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it—those who fought for slavery, and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict … We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers.
I thought of this speech as I looked at the statue meant to commemorate these Confederate soldiers. Douglass feared that such statues might one day line the landscape of our country. But I wondered whether he could have imagined that his own likeness would stand alongside one, as if they were two equally moral sides of the same coin, both worthy of being lifted up and venerated.
This is the problem with hollow attempts at “balance” in our public discourse. They mistake balance for fairness. Suggesting that Douglass and the Talbot Boys are equally worthy of public memorialization might be “balanced,” but it is not fair; it is not just. This war, as Douglass put it in an 1878 Memorial Day speech in New York City, was not simply a battle in which two sides fought nobly for what they believed in. No. It was “a war of ideas, a battle of principles … a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization.” He went on: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.”
In early June, 113 miles from where I stood, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had announced that a 130-year-old statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, in Richmond, would be taken down. I had been thinking about Lee a lot lately, how central his name and likeness were to the iconography of my own childhood. Hundreds of statues, schools, and roads across the country are named after Robert E. Lee. The statue of Lee in my own hometown of New Orleans was taken down in 2017. I traveled down Robert E. Lee Boulevard to get to school each day. I remember when, before its name was changed in the mid-’90s, there was a Robert E. Lee Elementary School that was attended mostly by Black children.
The veneration of Lee—a slave owner who led an army predicated on maintaining the institution of slavery—began immediately after his death, in 1870. Douglass was appalled. “Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease?” he asked. “We can scarcely take up a newspaper … that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee.”
The way Lee’s legacy seemed to be taking shape gave Douglass one of his earliest and clearest indications about how difficult the fight against the propaganda machine of the Lost Cause would be. “It would seem from this,” he said of Lee’s rise to saintly status, “that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven.”
My children were growing restless, and it became clear that we would have time to visit only one more place before heading back home and hoping they might fall asleep in the car.
As we drove toward Covey’s Landing, the roads became both emptier and more narrow. The houses became less frequent, with more distance between each new address. On one side of the road, wheat fields stretched out in every direction, like a golden blanket had been laid atop the land; on the other, budding corn stalks shot up out of the soil. I remarked to my wife how striking it was to consider that so much of this land had once been plantation fields Black people worked on. How their spirits still sang over these large plots of earth. She mentioned a point we discuss often: None of this was that long ago. We sat with that thought as we drove on, the car spitting up gravel behind its wheels.
In front of the last house before the dock, the American flag rose up a tall staff along with a large blue trump pence 2020 flag that whipped in the wind. I looked at my children in the rearview mirror, grateful for all they were too young to know. The road ended at the water’s edge. I parked and kept the car running. I told my family I needed just a few minutes.
I walked out onto a small wooden boat ramp and tried to take in my surroundings. The air was thick and heavy. The brown water was still but for the soft current that pulled ripples along its surface. On my right, a small tree jutted out from the shallow water, its branches bending down as if to drink. Across the river was a vast expanse of untamed, luscious green that looked like it ran out into the sky.
I turned to my left and saw the river bend to its right. Douglass’s birthplace was less than a mile north up Tuckahoe Creek. The only way to get a close view of the land upon which Douglass spent his childhood is to get in a canoe or kayak and paddle there yourself. I thought of a young Douglass growing up here. Learning, over time, the unfreedoms placed upon his boyhood body. “Living here, with my dear old grandmother and grandfather, it was a long time before I knew myself to be a slave,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom.
I learned by degrees the sad fact, that the “little hut,” and the lot on which it stood, belonged not to my dear old grandparents, but to some person who lived a great distance off, and who was called, by grandmother, “OLD MASTER.” I further learned the sadder fact, that not only the house and lot, but that grandmother herself … and all the little children around her, belonged to this mysterious personage.
I only had a few minutes to take in the space, to breathe in the air. As I stood at the edge of the dock, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes as if that might allow me to get a better glimpse of the land that Douglass had run over as a child, the land he had sunk his hands into when he returned as a man.
I got back in the car, shut the door, and made a U‑turn. My children quickly fell asleep in their car seats, and we switched from Disney musicals to the news, trying to hear updates on what had transpired that day with the protests, with the virus, with our country. We made our way through idyllic neighborhoods with open windows and colorful shutters. American flags hung from front porches. So did Confederate flags.
“I am not of that school of thinkers which teaches us to let bygones be bygones; to let the dead past bury its dead,” Douglass said in 1883.
In my view there are no bygones in the world, and the past is not dead and cannot die. The evil as well as the good that men do lives after them … The duty of keeping in memory the great deeds of the past and of transmitting the same from generation to generation is implied in the mental and moral constitution of man.
The next day, I scrolled through my Twitter timeline and came across an image that left me breathless. Under the haze of dusk, activists in Richmond had transformed the Robert E. Lee statue into a canvas blooming with new and reclaimed meaning. Garlands of graffiti wrapped around the statue’s base, their anti-racist messages written in colorful letters that curled and popped on the pedestal. Projected onto the side of the 40-foot base was the face of Douglass, his visage enormous and striking, upstaging the darkened silhouette of Lee above him. Between Douglass’s head and Lee’s silhouette was a quote from Douglass that I think about often when I see the protests, in their myriad forms: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “Looking for Frederick Douglass.”