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.”