Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bob Morrison.
In Washington, D.C., one of our most stately buildings is undergoing an extensive renovation. The Free Public Library, Northeast Branch is probably the library closest to Capitol Hill. And this red brick structure, with its stylish quoined corners, when it reopens, promises to bring even more opportunities for study and reflection to this thriving community.
We would like to suggest renaming this library after Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was, with Abraham Lincoln, the greatest example of what nineteenth century Americans meant when they defended “the right to rise.” Millions of Americans, native born and immigrant, free-born and emancipated slaves, committed themselves to self-government and self-improvement.
They recognized that knowledge is power. They sought to improve their minds in order to improve their country. We saw hundreds of colleges founded in the nineteenth century, including the first colleges for women and black Americans. We saw the vast expansion of the public library system, many the gift of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. We saw lecture series—like the famed Chautauqua Circuit—dedicated to informing and equipping the citizens of the world’s greatest republic.
Abraham Lincoln traveled the lecture circuit with his address on inventions and discoveries. He honed his research and oratorical skills in preparing and delivering this lecture. He knew something of invention. He is still the only president to hold a patent.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Loaned out to Baltimore relatives of his owner, he came in contact with young white boys. He pleaded with them to help him read.
It was in Baltimore that young Frederick Bailey—his birth name—first learned the power of literacy. His master’s kindly wife, Sophia Auld, was secretly teaching the bright young slave how to read. Frederick quickly picked up the rudiments of the alphabet. When her husband Hugh Auld discovered this, however, he became enraged.
“Learning would spoil the best n----- in the world,” Hugh Auld shouted. Mr. Auld went on scolding his wife, telling her that there would be no holding Frederick if he learned to read. A slave should know nothing but to obey his Master, Hugh Auld roared.