Md. hometown honors Douglass after years of debate

After years of struggle by local residents, famed 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass will finally be honored with a statue beside his Maryland hometown courthouse — a place that has long maintained a monument to local men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

For a biracial group that worked on the project, it's long-overdue recognition for an important American. They say the diversity of their effort is a sign of how far race relations have come in a county where the location of a Douglass statue stirred debate as recently as the last decade.

"I think it shows how this community has changed from a time when black people weren't allowed to even be on the courthouse lawn, and now we have a monument to a black man who was one of the most prominent figures of the 19th century," said Eric Lowery, president of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, which worked on bringing the monument to Easton. "It's truly a community project."

Douglass is easily Talbot County's most famous former resident. His autobiography, published in 1845, was a best-seller that helped fuel the abolitionist movement.

Yet the county has remained deeply divided on how to honor him. The courthouse lawn already has two memorials. One is for Vietnam veterans. The other is for the "Talbot Boys," local men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Veterans groups opposed putting a Douglass statue on the site, because they said the lawn was reserved for honoring military dead. They recommended a library or school as more appropriate. The opposition hurt black residents, particularly because one of the monuments honored people who fought for the Confederacy.

Now, signs throughout Easton's historic district read "Douglass Returns" under an image of the gray-bearded abolitionist, as the Eastern Shore town prepares for days of events leading up to Saturday's dedication.

Eleanor Shriver, executive director of the Historical Society of Talbot County, said, "We've given him the proper position in the community" — a recognition that was denied him in his own time.

Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore around 1817 or 1818. He went on to become an author, speaker, abolitionist and supporter of women's rights. The courthouse location is particularly important to supporters, because Douglass delivered his oft-repeated "Self-Made Men" speech there in 1878.

It's also about tourism dollars.

Local tourism officials believe the statue will be an additional draw for a region rich in history. Harriet Tubman, who led hundreds of slaves to freedom during the Civil War, also was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and state officials have been working to design an Underground Railroad National Historic Park in neighboring Dorchester County.

Deborah Dodson, director of tourism for Talbot County, said there is a strong market for travelers looking for authentic historic sites.

"The families that visit here are very interested in teaching their children about our nation's history and the prominent people that made our nation what it is today, and on another different side of that, the reason why we really reach out to these types of visitors is because the cultural heritage tourist spends far more money than leisure travelers — I think often times because they are more affluent," Dodson said.

Douglass' birthplace is about nine miles outside of Easton. University of Maryland archaeologists are excavating a plantation also about nine miles from town where Douglass lived for several years in the mid-1820s.

Easton officials have discussed erecting a Douglass statue for about 10 years. The county council voted in 2004 to allow the statue to be built, but an effort to build it stalled. The Frederick Douglass Honor Society sparked interest again in 2009, with the goal of raising the statue in 2010, the town's 300th anniversary. But the sculptor needed more time.

Locals walking past the courthouse this week said the monument is a long overdue tribute to a famous and important former resident.

"Our little town had a famous person who did a lot of good, so we're celebrating his good works," said Dyanne Welte.

But some had mixed feelings about the statue, because it has taken so long to honor a person who was clearly an important figure in American history.

"They should have done this a long time ago," said Michael James, who has lived in the town for 38 years.

Many in the town are excited the statue has finally come to Easton. A Friday night gala celebrating this weekend's milestone sold out almost instantly. Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to speak at the ceremony on Saturday.

"The town has been intimately involved in the statue effort for many years," said Robert Karge, the town manager.