11/20/2014 08:57 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Maryland's Emancipation and the Homecoming of Frederick Douglass

This week marks the 150th anniversary of Frederick Douglass' return to Baltimore. Douglass had escaped slavery 26 years before, but when Maryland ended slavery near the close of the Civil War, it took him only 16 days to come home. What he said to those who welcomed him back speaks through the years.

Since Maryland never left the Union, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had not applied. Still, Lincoln and antislavery advocates in the state pushed to end the institution. Enslaved black people were not waiting. They left plantations to join the Union army, demonstrating what Douglass envisioned at the start of the war: black men fighting in this conflict so freedom could not be taken from them at the end of it.

Maryland voters faced a referendum in October 1864 on a new Constitution that banned slavery. After it passed (by less than a thousand votes), November 1st brought more than 200 hundred years of legal bondage in Maryland to a close. Whether the whole country would follow suit was very much in doubt. The most immediate threat was the presidential election happening a week later. If Lincoln lost, his opponent George McClellan planned to negotiate a peace with the South, which would allow slavery to survive.

Due to a timely Union victory in Atlanta, Lincoln won the election, preserving the progress towards Douglass' life mission of ending slavery. To mark these momentous changes, Douglass made his way home to a state he could at last safely return to. He had fled as an obscure and harassed 20-year old, and returned now as one of the most famous speakers in the country.

Douglass walked around Fells Point, where he had been sent at age 8 from the Eastern Shore. Despite the pain of his enslaved years, Douglass still felt a strong nostalgia for this place. When his master, Hugh Auld, discovered his wife Sophia was teaching the slave child the alphabet, he forbid it. Even then, Douglass realized there must be power in reading. He was sent back to the Eastern Shore for three years of torment, yet the things he had learned in Baltimore enabled him to survive, to keep struggling for freedom. More than two decades later, Douglass tried to see Mrs. Auld, but her son told him to leave their property.

Word that Douglass was returning to Baltimore reached as far as Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, and Douglass' sister Eliza began a 60-mile trip to see a brother she had not seen for more than a quarter century. In fact, Douglass did not know if she was alive. Of their reunion, he wrote simply, "Our meeting can be better imagined than described."

After the emotion, Douglass took in that his sister of 52 years possessed a spirit that slavery had not broken. She had monitored his career as best she could, even giving her daughter the middle name Douglass, though it was Frederick Baily she had known her brother as. Douglass asked her about one family member after another, and she replied the same way: sold down south, she knew nothing more.

Bethel AME Church in Strawberry Alley had a tradition of radicalism that had helped shape Douglass when he attended as a child. The preacher Charles Lawson had told the young boy he was destined to do great work for the Lord. Lawson was an old man now.

On the arm of his sister, Douglass walked down the aisle of the packed church. The choir sang "Home, Sweet Home!" Upon reaching the dais, Douglass was overwhelmed by the lengthy applause and confessed, "I could not anticipate the extent and depth of this welcome." Looking out to familiar faces, he imaged ones that were missing. He said, "No speaker, I think, ever appeared before a public assembly, in circumstances more unusual and striking than I do this evening."

From there, Douglass did not focus on the past. He was here to shape the future of the state at this critical juncture. As he told them, his aim was a free Maryland with absolute civil and political equality. Black men needed the vote because with slavery, "any degree of liberty to the slave is dangerous to the master, but in a state of freedom, every invidious abridgement or limitation of liberty is dangerous and hurtful to the welfare of society."

Douglass told whites to reject the idea that "the black man's degradation is essential to the white man's elevation." Believing that others' rights somehow minimized their own slandered their own abilities. Instead, "the more men you make free, the more freedom is strengthened, and the more men you give an interest in the welfare and safety of the State, the greater is the security of the State." For nearly three hours he invested his address with more emotion than he had ever given a speech.

Douglass spoke at five more events before traveling on to Washington. Upon arriving, there was a note from President Lincoln asking Douglass to take tea with him at the Soldier's Home, Lincoln's retreat north of the White House. This was the second meeting in a row that Lincoln had initiated, but Douglass declined because he would not disappoint an audience by canceling. After all, he reasoned, there would be many more conversations with Lincoln in the years ahead.

The president would be gone sooner than anyone could have realized.

Douglass would visit Maryland many times in the decades that followed. Another 25 years later, a 73-year old Douglass learned that the Bethel Church of his childhood and his triumphant return had been abandoned. He bought the land and constructed five row houses for people to live in on that spot. What Douglass built, and the ideals he claimed, still stand today.