The Most Outstanding American

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  • Being the contrarian I am, I’ll be celebrating a completely different holiday than the rest of the nation come Monday, Sept. 3.
     
    Most Americans will be celebrating Labor Day; I, on the other hand, will be marking an observance that’s not even an official holiday: the 174th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery.
     
    Because, Lord knows, someone should.
     
    Douglass was the most outstanding American of the 19th century. Notice the distinct lack of a qualifier. I said “most outstanding American.” I did NOT say, “most outstanding African-American,” or “most outstanding black American.”
     
    I said “most outstanding American,” period, regardless of race, color or ethnicity. End of discussion.
     
    That means he was more outstanding than President Abraham Lincoln, inventor Thomas Edison, author Mark Twain and, well, fill in the name of any prominent 19th-century American here. And Douglass was sure as heck more outstanding than that slave-owning hypocrite Thomas Jefferson.
     
    Those prepared to debate my assertion need to ask themselves one question: what other 19th-century American rose to such heights after being born a slave?
     
    After he boarded a train in Baltimore on Sept. 3, 1838, disguised as a free black sailor, Douglass went on to become an abolitionist, lecturer, newspaper editor, advisor to several presidents and an ambassador for the very nation that once held him and others of his race in bondage.
     
    It was Douglass who climbed all over President Lincoln’s back, exhorting, cajoling and urging him to arm African-American slaves and let them fight for the Union. Lincoln was reluctant at first, but finally relented.

    He didn’t regret it.
     
    By September of 1864, Lincoln was convinced that the contribution of black Americans to the Union war effort would lead to eventual victory. That’s not mere speculation. Lincoln said as much in a letter dated Sept. 12, 1864 to some guy named Isaac Schermerhorn.
     
    “We cannot spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen and laborers,” Lincoln wrote. “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”
     
    Had the Union lost the Civil War, the United States would be a completely different country than it is today. If any one person can be given credit for America and Americans being who we are, that person would be Douglass.
     
    That’s the main reason I’ll be celebrating the 174th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery. But there are others. In case you haven’t guessed, Douglass is one of my main heroes, right up there with Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture.
     
    I have virtually nothing in common with Louverture, other than protoplasm and the two of us being of African descent. But with Douglass, it’s quite different.
     
    1. We were both born in Maryland. Douglass was born on the Eastern Shore in February of 1818 and named Frederick Bailey.
     
    I was born in Baltimore some 133 years later, on Dec. 29, effectively scuttling any New Year’s Eve celebration my parents were planning to have.
     
    2. Although Douglass was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, we’re both, in a way, Baltimoreans.
         
    Douglass spent part of his boyhood years in Baltimore. He returned as a teen to work as a ship’s caulker. It was while doing such work that Douglass plotted his escape from bondage.
     
    3. Douglass and I may have common ethnic roots.
     
    One Douglass biographer has speculated that the abolitionist’s ancestors were the Fulani people of West Africa. Douglass’ birth surname of “Bailey,” the biographer suggested, might be the Anglicized version of the Fulani surname “Belali.”
     
    I’ve made the acquaintance of a couple of guys from Mali here in Baltimore. They insist my surname is a quite common one in their country, and that the name, like Belali, is also Fulani.
     
    4. Douglass and I share roots on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He was born there. I’m descended from black folks that live on the Eastern Shore named Kane, and boy, is there a passel of ‘em.
         
    On the courthouse lawn in the town of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore stands a statue of Douglass. Don’t be surprised to find me cooking out there come Monday.
     

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