A portrait of Frederick Douglass.
credit: Mike Licht/Flickr

A giant among men, but not necessarily “Great.”

Great is a term which I like to save, descriptively speaking, for God. Jesus is Lord. God is great. I’m speaking for self, so please no criticism on that one.

Now, if there were a Mount Rushmore for Blacks — not that there should be or would be — it would have to start with Frederick Douglass. We could argue all day and all night about who else would go up on that mountain tribute. I’m sure we have to include Martin Luther King Jr. He made most significant contributions to the entire world, but he would not have accomplished what he did had there not been the path cut by Frederick Douglass.

It was because of Frederick Douglass that my mom, unbeknownst to us, made me read the biographies of “Great” Black men as a child. The ones they had at libraries. The few that were allowed that is. Remember this was the early 60s. We were permitted to read about those that were “credits to our race,” like George Washington Carver, Booker T Washington, and yes, among others, the “tolerated” revolutionary Frederick Douglass.

Innocently as would a child, I learned of our resilience and capacity to withstand injustices and pain, of our ability to use them to overcome unfavorable circumstances of life.

It doesn’t make one great.

I don’t remember most of what I read about Frederick Douglass. To be frank (Ken is highly preferred), it was over 50 years ago and, while I have visited Frederick Douglass’ home at Cedar Hill in Southeast D.C. and his museum on capitol hill, I need not elaborate on my memories.

If I did that, you probably wouldn’t visit either of them. Far be it for me to deny you the opportunity to learn what this man, with virtually no external resources at his disposal, achieved. What I will share is the input I received when I asked my niece, son and daughter “What about him affected your lives?”

Here is what I received:

  1. Frederick Douglass became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes including women’s rights and Irish Home Rule (a movement that agitated for self-government for Ireland within the UK).
  2. There are many interesting and profound facts surrounding Mr. Douglass. Born into slavery is miniscule in comparison to all he achieved for Blacks and overcame in his lifetime. The following are nine interesting facts about Frederick Douglass: (1) Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, the year 1818 in Talbot, MD; (2) He chose his name from a character from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake”; (3) Although born a slave, he escaped in 1838 and eventually settled with his wife in New Bedford, Mass.; (4) Published his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave in 1848.; (5) A strong supporter of the women’s rights movement, he attended the famous Seneca Falls Conference in 1848.; (6) He is best known for the newspaper he founded “The North Star” an abolitionist newspaper; (7) He consulted with President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and helped influence the Emancipation Proclamation. After Lincoln’s death Mrs. Lincoln sent her late husband’s walking stick to Mr. Douglass. (8) Mr. Douglass was nominated for Vice President of the United States as a member of the Equal Rights Party in 1872; (9) He died in 1895 in Washington, DC.
  3. The following is an insert taken from his memoir “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” [Douglass is astounded by the strange kindness of his new mistress, Sophia Auld. Mrs. Auld has never owned a slave before and seems untouched by the evils of slavery. Douglass is confused by her. Unlike other white women, she does not appreciate his subservience and does not punish him for looking her in the eye. Yet, after some time, the disease of slaveholding overtakes Mrs. Auld too. Her kindness turns to cruelty, and she is utterly changed as a person], Ch. V-VI.

As an intellect and man of great wisdom, Mr. Douglass left us with many quotes and pearls to live by:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” ( a personal favorite).
“I prefer to be true to myself even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence”

The National historic site where Mr. Douglass lived from 1877– 1895 is located in SE, Washington, DC.
It can be said with admiration, great pride and even astonishment, given his insurmountable challenges, that Frederick Douglass has left behind a legacy unlike many.

Ken Martin

Photo by Ken Martin

Yes, many of his accomplishments were actually great.

During Black History Month men and women of color are given the title Great. Their accomplishments were just that. Given the months of February through December there might still not be enough time to list the contributions of African-Americans to our world.

Doesn’t make them Great. Frederick Douglass was a MAN. To many “a great man, recognized more and more each day. (paraphrasing Donald Trump)”

In actuality, he was not great. He was REAL. He didn’t just perform great acts that changed the course of the world. This was a self-made man, breaking down barriers, blazing trails, opening doors, correcting skewed mindsets, proving the value of the oppressed and achieving goals others, White or Black, never even considered. Imagine, a slave being a viable vice presidential nominee.

But not Great!

Because not he nor Ben Franklin, Dwight Eisenhower, MLK Jr., Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, the Brothers Kennedy, or the rest who have accomplished world-altering tasks are Great. They did what they were supposed to do: serve their purpose on planet Earth by using the gifts talents and resources provided them by the creator of their choice to leave this place better than they found it for the sake/benefit (not detriment) of future generations of all color and beliefs.

That does not make a man great. Nor worthy of recognition. It makes him an actualized citizen of planet Earth. A leader, a teacher, a role model, a person of honor who set a high bar for himself and the ones behind him.

Frederick Douglass did what he was supposed to do. Frederick Douglass cared.

That’s what we all should do. Not for riches, fame, or greatness — but because we know it’s the right thing!

Frederick Douglass was a righteous man.

Paula Essex, Ronald Gross Jr. and Justice Martin contributed to this work.