When Frederick Douglass Visited The Family That Enslaved Him

Douglass on Porch
The Day Frederick Came Back. Original water color by Don Armstrong.

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.

Richard Tilghman
Tilghman. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

“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.”

In that vein Tilghman’s mother allowed the University of Maryland to study the grounds where Douglass and other African Americans lived to gain greater insight into their day-to-day lives. (More in a future blog.)

“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.”

The Gift of Trump

Frederick Douglass on display in the U.S. Capitol complex. James Lawler Duggan/MCT

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.

The awareness and momentum led to the formation of a Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission., and her son, Kenneth, is on it.

So, um, yes: Frederick Douglass is still out there doing big things.