Richard Tilghman is descended from one of Frederick Douglass’ slave masters. He’s the 12th generation to live on the Talbot County, MD, property—where the abolitionist leader spent ages 6 to 9 of his boyhood. Tilghman, who resides at Wye House with his wife Beverly, has read old newspaper accounts of how Douglass, as an older, freed man of international renown, happened to visit Tilghman’s great grandfather.
“Douglass came back in 1881, and the principal purpose of the trip was to meet with a slave breaker named Cody in St. Michaels, MD. And then he took it upon himself to come here and visit Wye House [a short distance away in Easton].
“He was greeted by various members of the family and shown up to the main house by my great grandfather, who was only 22 years old at the time. Newspaper accounts said they sat there and drank tea, but I never saw my great grandfather drink a cup of tea in my life. I’m pretty sure they drank mint juleps, whiling away half the afternoon on the porch, chatting.”
“Word got out.
“My great grandfather felt it was important enough that he greet this man, treat him like an equal. We definitely feel the connection to Frederick Douglass. Let’s face it, he was the most important African American of the 19th Century.
“I can’t rewrite history,” says Tilghman. “I’m not proud that my family owned slaves. I can’t change that. What can you do about it, you do. What we’ve been trying to do is to be part of an effort to understand what life was like for the [enslaved] people.”
“I have to say racism is alive and well, and our friends in Washington aren’t making it any better,” Tilghman concluded. “To solve problems, we have to be willing to stand up and talk about what happened, why it happened, without being ashamed or defensive.”
I spoke with Harriette Lowery in early January about the Frederick Douglass Honor Society‘s efforts to celebrate FD’s 200th birthday. She, her husband Eric, (pictured) and the wider Talbot County, MD, community were busy preparing for a prayer breakfast on February 10. A number of Douglass’ extended family were set to attend, including Rev. Clarence Wayman, whose great great great uncle was Douglass’ best friend, and Professor Dale Glenwood Green, a nephew of Wayman and also a descendant of Harriet Tubman.
Pamela K. Johnson: Tell me about the Frederick Douglass Honor Society. Harriette Lowery: We came together basically just to put up a statue honoring Frederick Douglass. We learned that he was a native of the Talbot County, MD, and thought he should be honored in some way. We were so successful in getting the statue up, and bringing a diverse community together to support it, that it was hard to go home and close the door.
PKJ: So what happened next? HL: We started doing other events. It became a mission to dedicate ourselves to putting together programs that continued to honor Douglass’ legacy, a legacy for human rights, education, personal growth and involvement… It was important for us to make sure people understood that he was not just an African American hero, but an American hero. His values are far reaching and cover everybody. The things he wrote and talked about, even today, resonate so strongly in how we raise our children, how we promote education for all citizens…
PKJ: The statue went up in 2011, what continues to spur the FD Honor Society on? HL: The man himself, and what he represents in terms of his strength, his ability to rise above so much adversity in his life: enslavement, escape, trying to survive… Also he was always able to debunk the myths about African Americans not being able to be educated, to be self-made… After much of his success, he came back to dedicate churches, give speeches, and visit with the family that enslaved him. One plantation, where he was enslaved as a child, their descendants are still there. I know them; they’ve worked with us on a lot of events and have supported us financially.
When I unsuccessfully pitched my Year of Frederick Douglass idea to several
publications, I thought someone would surely take it. One of my queries:
It’s the Year of Frederick Douglass! The abolitionist, orator, and former slave got a pre-200th birthday shout out last February when President Trump kicked off Black History Month by suggesting that Douglass might still be out there doing big things.
Though he’s been gone since 1895, his accomplishments in the areas of civil rights, women’s suffrage, and self-definition continue to resonate, and more than 40 organizations from Rochester, NY, to Edinburgh, Scotland, have planned a full year’s worth of bicentennial events.
I’ve spoken to the heads of a number of these organizations, and also interviewed two of Douglass descendants. The latter are giving away a million copies of Douglass first autobiography. I’ve spoken with the descendant of a family that still lives on the land where Douglass was enslaved, and later returned to spend an afternoon with his former enslaver. Lastly I’ve spoken with a Harvard professor/Douglass’ scholar who’s coffee-table book, Picturing Frederick Douglass, is being reissued with eight never-before-seen photos in February. (Here’s a story I wrote about the book for NBCBLK.)
I can turn around “Descending from Douglass,” a 1500- to 2000-word feature in two or three days. It will highlight the year’s events, while exploring why a man who was friends with President Lincoln and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, still resonates with people on both sides of the Atlantic today.
(1) Popular Women’s Magazine
Interested and would love to hear more. Are you available for a quick chat on Friday morning?
Subsequent emails got no response.
Thank you so much for your pitch. At this time, it doesn’t seem like quite the right fit, but we appreciate the chance to consider it and wish you well in placing your story elsewhere.
(3) NY Times
Thanks for following up. I don’t think this is quite right for the magazine at the moment. I’m going to pass.
The good news is, though, that a friend may join me on the blog with his illustrations. So I won’t be confined to 1,500 or 2000 words, and can really let this story open up and unfold.
Last February, FD got a pre-200th birthday shout out from President Trump, who kicked off Black History Month by suggesting that the great abolitionist and orator might still be out there doing big things.
Nettie Washington-Douglass suggests her great-great-grandfather, born 200 years ago this month, worked his posthumous magic through the 45th President when he stated: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more.”
On Juneteenth 2013, when the statue (above) was placed in the U.S. Capitol complex to represent Washington, D.C., Washington-Douglass received a small replica of the 7-foot-plus original.
After the Trump dust-up, she turned to a tiny statuette of her ancestor— who died in 1895—to ask, “Did you have something to do with that? And he said, ‘Mmm hmph,’ ” Washington Douglass said with a wink.
The Commander-in-Chief’s lack of knowledge about her ancestor came as a surprise.
“How can he be the President of the United States,” she wondered, “and not know the man is dead?”
On the other hand, she said, it was the best thing that could have happened for their Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI) organization. “People Googled us, went to our website, we got more donations, and Kenny got more invites [to speak].”
Kenny is her son, Kenneth B. Morris. The two of them, along with family friend and associate Robert Benz, run FDFI, which has given away upwards of 55,000 free copies of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, with a goal of sharing a million copies with youths 12-18 years old during this bicentennial year.
The biggest positive is that more people got to know Frederick Douglass.
“He was an expert at marketing himself,” FD’s great grand daughter said. “He took over the image he wanted to portray, and got it out there. If he were alive today, he’d have a million Twitter followers.”
But since he’s not still with us, she suggests with a laugh, that he used the unlikely personage of Trump to help spread the word about his 200 birthday celebrations, occurring around the world throughout 2018.
A year ago, I learned that the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass, lived only 15 or 20 miles down the road from me in California. I became aware of Kenneth B. Morris Jr. when I wrote a story for NBC news about the coffee-table book, Picturing Frederick Douglass, which said the legendary leader was also the most photographed man of the 19th Century.
I started my article thus:
“Born into slavery in 1818, it’s likely that Frederick Douglass wore rags as a child. But he borrowed the clothing of a seaman and stole away to freedom in 1838. As an abolitionist, author, and adviser to U.S. presidents, he donned luxurious ascots, vests and overcoats. Historians know this because 160 distinct portraits of him exist — compared to only 126 of President Lincoln.”
It was paging through the book—a new edition of which will soon be published with eight new FD photographs—that I became aware of Douglass’ descendant Kenneth.
After nearly a year of back and forth emails, I finally got Ken to come to my house for lunch last March, and we talked for a couple of hours about one of his famous grandfathers. (The other was Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington.) I recorded our conversation, and then let the voice memo sit, untranscribed, for the better part of a year.
Then around October, I finally got it typed up. More than 30 pages worth. I traveled much of October and November, worked on a project in December, and when I came up for air in January, I realized it was the Year of Frederick Douglass already, and groups around the country had already begun celebrating the 200th year of Douglass’ birth.
In a great rush, I called up Douglass’ descendants, heads of organizations hosting FD events throughout 2018, and even chatted with a man whose family once enslaved Douglass in Maryland. I pitched stories to several outlets, but no one bit.
Then I thought, What Would Frederick Do? He’d publish the stories himself. In fact, he was a newspaper publisher.
So, since we still have a free press—so far—I’ll be posting stories about Douglass that inspire me in the coming days, weeks, and months. If you have information about a cool Douglass event, or a Douglass story that inspires you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As A.J. Aiseirithe,one of the people keeping a Frederick Douglass Bicentennial calendar, told me: “We could start right now and tell stories about him…through the end of 2018, and we would not have said everything that needs to be said.”
The real Oscar buzz began for Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind, after she nailed a scene where she tearfully relays to family friend Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) that Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is suicidal over the death of his baby girl.
While black folks and black newspapers alike didn’t “give a damn” about Gone With the Wind (GWTW)—the film adaptation of a racist novel that glorified slavery—they were excited that McDaniel could potentially make history with a Best Supporting Academy Award win.
The actress couldn’t rely on buzz, however. Nor would she could depend on Hollywood to do the right thing. Instead, she walked into producer David O. Selznick’s office in Culver City, Calif., with a stack of articles that and gently leaned on him to submit her name for Oscar contention.
Black journalists urged readers to write Selznick and demand that McDaniel be put in the running, and a letter from McDaniel’s sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho, predicted that discrimination and prejudice could be wiped away if she were to win. Selznick agreed with her supporters that her performance was Oscar worthy, and put her name forward. (Awkwardly enough, one of the actresses she was up against was co-star de Havilland).
McDaniel’s journey to that moment was a slow, arduous climb. Though she’d come from a talented family of entertainers in Denver, only her two older brothers had consistent success in show business. The eldest had died in his 30’s, while Sam McDaniel, a few years older than Hattie, landed bit parts and played Deacon McDaniel on CBS’ radio show, the Optimistic Do-Nut Hour. Mostly he earned his living as a bandleader.
Baby sister Hattie struggled, often taking domestic work, as her mothers and sisters before her. Though she performed often, and even toured with a 1929 Show Boat production, the Depression gutted her entertainment career, and she came west from Milwaukee where she was squeaking by in 1931. In Los Angeles, she was a recurring cast member on Sam’s radio show and gigged with the Sarah Butler’s Old Time Southern Singers. She also took on domestic work to make ends meet, just as older sister, Etta, did. All three siblings got roles in moving pictures here and there.
With the success of 1934’s Imitation of Life, featuring a white woman and a black woman as friends (actresses Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers), bigger, brown-skinned women such as Beavers—and McDaniel—were suddenly in vogue. And when McDaniel got word that Selznick was casting GWTW, she read the 1935 Pulitzer Prize winning novel several times, determined to claim the part of Mammy for herself.
Landing a contract would mean guaranteed pay for several months, but it required patience as Selznick milked the free publicity by dragging out the audition process. He even sent talent scouts to acting troupes around the country. Several stars, including McDaniel, screen tested for their parts more than once.
Once she’d won the role, shot her part, and been nominated for the Oscar, McDaniel became the first African-American to attend the ceremony, then-12 years old. In the background, actor Clarence Muse, columnist and actor Harry Levette, and journalist Earl Morris were the among the first African-American Academy voters to cast ballots that year, according to one of Hattie’s biographers, Jill Watts.
Still, some black folks were not appeased by what they perceived to be window dressing on a shack of a story that demeaned blacks and made slavery seem tepid compared to the real thing. Walter Francis White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People nudged Selznick for several years to consult with him (or a black scholar) to expand and enhance GWTW’s black story line. Selznick corresponded with White, and yet held him at bay. But the producer could not stop protesters from picketing his feature outside theaters around the country, or at the Oscar ceremony itself at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.
That pivotal night, Fay Bainter, the previous year’s Best Supporting winner took the stage and proclaimed how happy she was to present this “particular” honor which “enables us…to reward those who have given their best regardless of creed, race or color…” With that, she teed up the announcement that McDaniel had scored the momentous victory and an historic first.
McDaniel bounded up the steps to accept her award—back then a small
plaque with a petite Oscar figurine welded to it—and forgot(?) the speech Selznick International had prepared for her. Instead she spoke from her heart.—and very possibly from a speech that she and journalist and friend, Ruby Berkley Goodwin Ruby Berkley Goodwin, had written together. (GWTW went on to take 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.)
Flowers and congratulatory telegrams poured in from around the country, with papers, big and small, championing the victory. But within a year or two, McDaniel was again desperate for work. Her career floundered until 1947, when she landed the role of Beulah on the radio.
A hundred years after The Birth of a Nationwas released in 1915, actor Nate Parker is at work on a film using the same name.
The original, made during the silent picture era, was directed by D. W. Griffith, and adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel and play, The Clansman. The story centers around two white families—one Northern, the other Southern—who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, but ultimately unite in their efforts to trap the newly freed Negro at the bottom of society with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan.
Parker’s film, as you might imagine, will vastly depart from that narrative. It’s set to explore the life of Nat Turner, visionary preacher turned badass, who led a bloody slave rebellion in which 60 whites were killed before Turner was captured and hanged.
Parker wrote the project and will direct it, inspired to retell Turner’s story because “when black history came around, I saw the pictures of the [slave] ships and all the people, and it brought intense shame and embarrassment.” Those feelings stemmed from his lack of knowledge about blacks’ attempts to stop the “dirty system” of slavery.
Parker’s take on Birth of a Nation “isn’t a story about a black guy that killed white people,” he has said, it’s “about an American hero that fought for ideals that America was supposed to be built on: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, one nation under God.”
Recently I watched Griffith’s film (the whole three-hour-plus epic can be seen here) as research for my novel about a little remembered battle between America’s first black Oscar winner, and the man who headed up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 25 years. Efforts to protest Birth played a significant role in expanding the then-budding the NAACP, which was founded in 1909.
Here are my notes on the original:
–Many of the key black roles are played by whites in blackface, with make up that gets dodgy at the neckline.
–The “tragic mulatto” trope is rolled out, including a biracial man who becomes drunk with power, and a “mixed” woman who spits, tears at her clothing, and has a drifting gaze that makes her look deranged.
–Love is lavished upon a newly created Confederate flag, and racist quotes from Woodrow Wilson (above), then-President of the United states, appear on title cards throughout. (Wilson and Griffith were roomies at Johns Hopkins University.)
(The 28th Commander-in-Chief allowed Birth of a Nation to be shown at the White House, and also authorized cabinet members to reverse racial integration in the federal civil service. Under his administration, federal restrooms and cafeterias became re-segregated, and partitions were installed to separate black federal workers from white ones. As you may have heard of late, some are calling for Wilson’s name to be removed from public places.)
–The original movie asserted that freed blacks should not be treated equally or given the vote because they were irresponsible and dangerous.
–Blacks elected to Congress during the brief Reconstruction Era are portrayed as whiskey-drinking, fried-chicken eating uncouths. When black men aren’t carousing, they’re trying to seduce white women. One brute is so obsessed that he chases a white damsel to her death, which the KKK quickly avenges.
—At the end of the film, blacks try to vote on election day and the KKK, hooded and towering above on horseback, block their path.
While Griffith’s Birth of a Nation gave America a blueprint for how to disenfranchise, marginalize and terrorize black people, Parker’s said his intention was to show a younger generation of black kids that their roots are not at the bottom of a slave ship. “We stand on soil that has reminiscences of our ancestors. We’re not alone.”