Black History Month: finding Frederick Douglass on my bookshelf


This post was originally published in February 2017.

The amazing display of ignorance at the White House yesterday reminded me of something I discovered last summer when rearranging our bookshelves. Back in the late 1970s, everyone in our extended family received a book from our great Aunt Virginia Stewart Fisher entitled Some Old Houses of Maryland. Her late husband, William H. Fisher, known as Uncle Billy, was an early adopter of photography at the turn of the 20th century, and he took many photographs of houses and landscapes near their home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. When he passed in 1938, he left an archive of glass negatives and hand-written notes about the places and people he photographed. Thirty-four years younger than her husband, Aunt Vi kept the archive for decades and in the 1970s she shared some of the images and stories with the Baltimore Sun, which led to my mother helping her self-publish the book.

I confess I barely glanced at it over the years, looking mostly at the photos and not bothering to decipher the handwritten text – I don’t know whose idea it was to publish it just as he had written it but I am grateful they did. The words are so much more powerful on the page this way. It is a strange read, this book, with odd anecdotes sprinkled among the arcane details of architecture and ownership of the homes the book is meant to document.

I’ve never visited my grandfather’s home town of Easton, Maryland, and so the locations and homes in the book do not resonate with me as much as others in my family. My memories consist of stories and recipes passed along by Aunt Vi, whose visits to our home in Iowa and annual Christmas care packages were eccentric (and delicious) but not the stuff of history.

So last summer, as an excuse to sit down and stop rearranging shelves, I began flipping through Uncle Billy’s book and near the end, in an entry about Wye House, a name caught my eye. “Frederick Douglass,” Uncle Billy wrote, “the mulatto boy who in later years became Marshall of the District of Columbia, spent much of his boyhood at Wye House.” That’s all. If you didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was (and apparently a lot of people in the White House don’t) you might think he summered at Wye House and that being the Marshall of the District of Columbia was his most notable accomplishment. I struggled to understand the context of what seemed like a begrudging, coded reference to one of the great men of American history in a book that is, admittedly, meant to be about houses. Great pains are taken to detail the homes and the families who built them, but the slave trade that dominated that place and time is not-so-neatly papered over.

The comments and stories in the book allude to the vital role of slavery in the culture and history of the Eastern Shore with tacit acceptance and no insight. I recall my mother (born and raised in Philadelphia) saying that she saw something like the Confederacy when she visited Easton as a girl. Aunt Vi, Mom told me, offered her left hand to African Americans when meeting them, and warned of drinking too much coffee because it could “make you into a darkie.” When I heard this as a girl in the 1970s it was made to seem like that kind of racism doesn’t exist any more, but even then I knew it wasn’t true. Still, until recently,  I didn’t fully realize how much Americans – myself included – need a daily civics lesson.

f-douglass-wm-fisher-wye-house-1It turns out there is a vast archive that can be traced from that one sentence of Uncle Billy’s. As I write, the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library has an exhibition called Frederick Douglass and Wye House, Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland (see what happens when you Google something, WH speechwriters?). On display through July 2017, the exhibit details the scientific research conducted over the last nine years at the Wye House site and the artifacts and independent though intertwined cultures of the back and white people who lived there.

What Uncle Billy called Wye House was called the Great House Farm by the slaves, and that detail alone underscores for me how much I do not know about the complex roots that connect our family stories to the larger arc of American history. Some Old Houses of Maryland has more stories and photos that deserve an even closer look now, and that is how I am going to observe Black History Month.

For future reference.
For future reference.

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