John Muller, a local historian and author, organized and led a walking tour titled “The Lost History of Frederick (Bailey) Douglass in Baltimore, 1824-1895” on Friday. The tour departed from the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, and highlighted various locations in Fell’s Point that Douglass frequented during his time in Baltimore.
The tour’s emphasis on Baltimore’s history and Douglass’ relationship to the city helped attract students. Junior Bonnie Jin said that she participated in the tour because she was curious about the history of Baltimore.
“I was really interested in Baltimore history, and I felt like I needed to learn more, especially about African American history, which is oftentimes overlooked,” she said. “It’s interesting to compare the history of Baltimore with the history of Boston, which is where I’m from, especially in regards to the abolition movement.”
The tour first stopped on Thames Street. Muller explained that Frederick Douglass first came to Baltimore when he was around eight or nine years old, enslaved to former Maryland Governor Hugh Auld.
Muller began by describing Douglass as a child. He explained that Douglass was the playmate of Auld’s son, Thomas Auld, and as a result, spent a lot of time with a gang of Irish kids called the Fell’s Point Boys.
“Douglass is a very sophisticated person. He was the friend of the governor’s son, but he also could run the streets,” Muller said. “In the movie Glory, he’s portrayed as very stoic and stiff. Frederick Douglass was not stoic and stiff. He’s a very easygoing free-flowing person.”
Muller then pointed out 28 Thames St., where Nathaniel Knight, a bookseller, sold Douglass the first book he ever owned, a copy of The Columbian Orator.
At the time, Knight was a justice of the peace in Maryland, a role in the state judiciary.
Muller explained the risk that Douglass took when buying the book.
“Douglass buys [The Columbian Orator], which at that time, of course, is an illegal action,” he said. “This means that when Douglass is buying this book, the person he’s buying it from is trusted, confirmed by the senate of Annapolis, to enforce the various laws [of a justice of the peace].”
The tour then turned onto Bond Street. Muller shared another anecdote from Douglass’ life, explaining that in the 1830s, financial instability in Baltimore led to tensions between Irish and free black and enslaved workers. Muller said that Frederick Douglass was assaulted by a white dock worker, and Hugh Auld sought redress in court, going to see a lawyer on Bond Street. But the law at the time did not allow Frederick Douglass, an enslaved person, to speak in court, and did not allow anyone of African descent to bear witness.
Next, the group stopped on Dallas Street, formerly known as Strawberry Alley. When he was still enslaved to Hugh Auld, Frederick Douglass worshipped at a Methodist church on Strawberry Alley, Muller pointed out.
“When Methodism is formed as a religious denomination in America in 1784, one of the stipulations is that you cannot be a member in good standing in the Methodist church if you own slaves,” he said. “[Douglass] attended services here [on Dallas Street] at Strawberry Alley Methodist Church.”
In 1892, Douglass bought property on Strawberry Alley. He reopened the church, which had since closed, and built five homes. Muller noted that throughout his lifetime, Douglass invested in various other properties.
“He never attended a single day of formal school in his life, yet he had an in-depth, complex understanding of economics. He was an investor in real estate in Rochester, [Washington, D.C. and] Baltimore,” Muller said.
He elaborated on the benefit that Douglass’ purchase of the properties on Strawberry Alley had on the Baltimore community.
“When Douglass is building these homes, they are going to be open to all nationalities, with potentially a preference for blacksmiths, carpenters, educators from this community… Just like today, Baltimore has housing issues. Frederick Douglass didn’t just stand on the sidelines. He put his money where his mouth was and opened these properties,” Muller said. “Frederick Douglass gave back to his community.”
Vrshank Ravi, class of 2019, said that he was particularly interested in Muller’s stories about Douglass’ involvement in real estate.
“I was like, ‘how did that work back then?’ Especially because Baltimore and real estate, and the whole history of redlining and more modern problems,” he said. “I do a lot of work on urban economics and that really stood out to me.”
Muller added that Frederick Douglass taught night school on Dallas Street, and explained that he was very involved in the Baltimore school system.
“In Baltimore, Frederick Douglass advocated one, that black children should be taught by black teachers, and two, that black teachers should receive equal pay,” he said.
Towards the end of the tour, Muller discussed Douglass’ political views.
“Frederick Douglass was very much a committed Republican, and it’s very important to understand the context of political patronage and how he used his connections within the system to help out African Americans, which, historians have not really told that story,” he said.
Muller clarified that Douglass was still an ardent abolitionist, who believed that political agitation was necessary to create change.
To illustrate his point, Muller told the story of Douglass once publicly refusing to shake hands with Baltimore Chief of Police and former Confederate Cavalry Officer Harry S. Gilmor.
“Frederick Douglass has that visceral vision, that prophesy. He understands that political agitation is the one way to make change,” he said. “He does not serve in the Civil War, but he essentially served in the abolitionist war.”
Like Jin, Ravi also appreciated the fact that Muller focused on aspects of Douglass’ life which are often overlooked by historians.
“There’s a lot of stories that aren’t told or are told wrong, and getting original research is really difficult,” he said. “It made me wish I took more history at Hopkins.”
Jin also said that she appreciated the situated context of the tour, since they walked around the locations of importance.
“We were walking along the same place that so many historical things were happening,” she said. “Him telling the story, added on with the fact that we were walking through, it made it really vivid for me.”