On a snowy February day, several historians gathered outside the Washington County Courthouse on West Washington Street to learn more about Frederick Douglass. In April of 1879, Douglass made a “self-made man” speech at the courthouse.
“I feel enlightened about being at this particular spot, because I didn’t know the history of Frederick Douglass existed in Western Maryland. It’s one of the things that wasn’t privied to us in high school,” Ron Lytle said, chairman of the African American Historical Association of Western Maryland and Franklin County.
“It’s exciting because there are untold stories that much of our community and, naturally, people don’t know. It’s an opportunity to tell these stories more extensively,” Reggie Turner said, a commissioner with the Maryland Commission on African American History & Culture.
The local proceeds from that speech were donated to what is now known as the Ebenezer A.M.E church in Hagerstown. John Muller, an author and historian, says Douglass valued the Methodist church as a young man.
“Frederick Douglass received a lot in his life, but he also gave a lot back. I think that it is very important to tell that story of Frederick Douglass,” said Muller.
“The A.M.E church was so much a part of his very being, just heightens his presence in this community, transcendent when we look to Black American History,” said Don Marbury, pastor of Ebenezer A.M.E church.
Muller outlined more of the history as part of his walking tour in Hagerstown. He says Douglass stayed at the Washington House Hotel in downtown. That space is now where the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown is located. Muller says Douglass was the marshal of the District of Columbia, meaning he could have probably stayed anywhere he wanted.
“My understanding is what the premiere lodging in town at that time when prominent businessmen, lawyers, all sorts of folks would come to Hagerstown. They would stay in the Washington House,” Muller said.
However, in 1950, when Willie Mays came to Hagerstown for a baseball game, he was not allowed to stay at that very same hotel.
“I think that really speaks to just the respect that Frederick Douglass had. And also, Douglass was very deliberate in where he stayed. He wanted to make a point,” Muller said.
Muller has been studying Frederick Douglass for years and says that for far too long, people tell the same old stories of his life, but don’t realize his true impact in Western Maryland.
“He’s someone who walked this community. He was someone who spoke at the courthouse. He was someone who stayed at the Washington House. Frederick Douglass, the same steps that people in Hagerstown walk today. That’s the same steps that Frederick Douglass took,” Muller said.
Other historians in the tour hope they can now tell new stories about Douglass for future generations.
“And we want to continue to uplift our community with the new history and the old history,” Lytle said.
“Hopefully, there’s going to be some tie-in with our schools, so kids will be able to not only tell the stories of Frederick Douglass that we all know, but be able to kind of talk more specifically about Frederick Douglass and his commitment to even smaller communities here in Hagerstown,” Turner said.