By Katie Bedard
Elm Staff Writer
This year’s Birthday Convocation marks more than just a significant event for George Washington. As part of Frederick Douglass’s bicentennial birthday, Washington College will be honoring him posthumously with a degree for Doctor of Laws.
While it’s not unusual for WC to give out honorary degrees during convocation, this particular one will certainly be notable for both the College and Douglass’s legacy. Much of the reason WC is giving the degree specifically has to do with Douglass’s influential legacy and his connection to the Eastern Shore.
Initially, I, like a lot of students here at WC, didn’t think too much about this event. I also imagined that the fact that Douglass was the one who was chosen this year didn’t necessarily have much to do with the College. Although Douglass never attended WC, lived in Chestertown, nor was affiliated with the school, there was still a connection to the school.
“When I came to Washington College and the Eastern Shore, I was excited to be teaching one of my favorite writers so close to his home, but also surprised to find that many people from the region did not know his work or legacy,” said Dr. Sean Meehan, associate professor of English and director of writing. “A couple years ago, in conversation with Adam Goodheart and others, knowing that Douglass’s 200th birthday was coming in 2018, we began to think about ways the College could celebrate his legacy.”
Douglass’s descendent, Kenneth Morris, and Yale professor David Blight will be receiving the degree. Morris will be talking with eighth grade students from Kent County Middle School and handing out copies of Douglass’s autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” along with students from the College’s Black Student Union.
“We really expect this event to be not just about WC, but also about the community of the Eastern Shore, including the African-American Eastern Shore community in which Douglass was very much a part,” said Goodheart, director of the Starr Center for the American Experience.
Being proud of living on the Eastern Shore is something that almost all students here at WC can relate to. We are the Shoremen, after all. What a lot of students might not know about Douglass is that he was born 200 years ago on the Eastern Shore 30 miles away from WC, along the border of Caroline and Talbot counties.
“He actually writes about the Eastern Shore as just this benighted, backwards, incredibly repressive place, where even the landscape is very bleak and the inhabitants are sort of stuck in another time,” Goodheart said. “It’s a place where he experienced great cruelty, physical and psychological cruelty, where he saw family members of his also being physically abused in horrible ways and so he grew up associating this is as a place with slavery but he also grew up thinking of this region as a place that promised freedom.”
While he did come to find pride in the place he was born, he did not view the Eastern Shore the same way throughout his life.
“Then later in his life after the Civil War he was seen coming back here and kind of reconciling to this area,” Goodheart said. “He also embraces his pride in being from the Eastern Shore.”
According to Goodheart, Douglass famously said, “Eastern Shore corn and Eastern Shore pork gave me my muscle. I love Maryland and the Eastern Shore.”
It’s impossible to know how Douglass would have reacted to receiving this degree from WC. It is apparent that Douglass came to love the land of the Eastern Shore. Some might say that this event is WC’s way of saying that they’re honored one of the most influential Americans of all time came from this little corner of Maryland.