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Frederick Douglass: Bookends Of A Great American Life

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass and I go way back — to the day I discovered his Life and Times in a San Francisco used bookstore round the corner from my house. I’ve read every page of his journey across the 19th century, from slavery to freedom to fame.

His autobiography takes you there, under the lash and on the train to Philadelphia, his escape from slavery. Crossing the Mason-Dixon line was treacherous, but he made it, wearing a sailor’s uniform.

Last Sunday, I visited Cedar Hill, Douglass’s spacious home in Washington, intact from the library volumes to the blue cistern for ice water. You can see the Capitol clear in the distance. Douglass lived here during the last chapter of his life, during which he was appointed ambassador to Haiti among other government posts.

It seemed fitting the freedom fighter lived well to a ripe age in this southerly point. Douglass was known as “the Lion of Anacostia” for his white mane. His wife’s Singer sewing machine sat upstairs. This house is where his story ends; he died in the front hall.

His story began 200 years ago. Douglass was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where slavery was as brutal as the Deep South’s cotton fields. I’ve seen where he grew up, in Talbot County by the Chesapeake Bay. The thousand-acre plantation was owned by the Lloyd family, with vast swaths worked by enslaved people.

When I traveled there, the carriage entrance, the land and the Great House were still owned by the Lloyd family — the 11th or 12th generation. The antebellum profusion of partridges, pheasants, ducks, and other game was not hard to imagine. I had the time-travel experience of sitting in the parlor with Mrs. Lloyd.

The elegant lady, 87, told me her grandfather welcomed “Frederick” to have drinks on the veranda when he came sailing down the river, a distinguished free man with a party of friends. Oh, how proud they were.


Baltimore played a key part in Douglass’s life in bondage. As a child, he stayed with a wealthy family with a boy his age, Tommy. In a rare twist, Tommy’s mother taught both to read. That violated law and custom.

Strong under the sky, Douglass worked as a caulker on the city waterfront and turned his wages over to his master. Baltimore is where he established social contacts and resources to plan his escape — hard to do out in the country. Baltimore is where he boarded the train north to freedom in 1838. He found a safe haven in Massachusetts.

The abolitionist movement was just stirring. Douglass, striking in appearance and speech, became the first public speaker to tell the story of American slavery from personal experience. He humanized slavery, from the separation from his mother and grandmother to being dragged by horses to jail for attempting to escape. After his spellbinding oratory on Nantucket Island, Douglass became a sensation on the anti-slavery circuit.

While the Civil War raged, Douglass urged President Abraham Lincoln to let black soldiers join the Union Army. Lincoln took his advice. An extraordinary moment came after Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. At the gathering, Lincoln said, “Here comes my friend Douglass. I am glad to see you. How did you like it?”

Lincoln added: “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

According to his autobiography, Douglass replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”

Keep in mind Lincoln said this before a white throng. Weeks later, the war was over and the president was dead. Douglass likened him to a mountain pine, with “grand simplicity and homely beauty.”

Douglass gave living portraits of the great people in his times, including Lucretia Mott, the radiant Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights champion.

A word about Douglass and women. He had two wives, one black and one white. Over the living room fireplace was a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Othello,” which he brought home from Italy — an interracial love story.

On Douglass’s last day in 1895, he came home from a women’s suffrage meeting with his old friend Susan B. Anthony. Now I have truly read his great book of life, from end to end.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit

Woman’s Face On U.S. Currency Shouldn’t Be A Politician’s Face

Whoever the woman is on the next $10 bill, here’s who it shouldn’t be:

A politician. A Cabinet member. A First Lady.

Put a poet there. A scientist. A musician with a social cause. A social worker. A teacher. A suffragette. An abolitionist.

But, please, not someone primarily associated with politics.

Since Wednesday, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced that a woman will finally star on our paper money, opinions have heated up over who that woman should be.

The excitement is fun to watch, even if this is hardly an advance on par with the first moon landing.

In fact, it’s a bit of a letdown to some people. The honoree will be on a $10 bill instead of on a $20, a disappointment to those who wanted to oust Andrew Jackson.

The lucky winner won’t have the whole bill to herself either. She’ll have to cohabit with its current occupant, Alexander Hamilton.

And the redesign won’t arrive until 2020.

Still, it’s a breakthrough. As others have cracked, a woman is about to shatter the cash ceiling, at least for the first time since Martha Washington, wife of George, appeared on a silver certificate in the late 1800s.

But which woman?

A few women in the political realm are strong contenders.

One is Frances Perkins.

Perkins was U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She fought for child-abor laws. She established the country’s first minimum-wage and overtime laws. I’ve heard her referred to as kickass, and she was.

If she became the face on the next $10 bill, I’d be proud to carry that cash.

But the new currency is the perfect opportunity to think beyond Washington, D.C., to consider the fact that people with power and courage exist beyond the narrow political realm.

That’s why First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, grand as she was, wouldn’t get my vote.

When I was thinking about this topic, someone asked me why we put people’s faces on our money at all.

Why not put an excerpt of the Constitution instead?

Why not birds or butterflies, the way the Costa Ricans do?

Why not pizza?

The best answer, I think, is that people contain stories. Through individual stories we get to tell our bigger, collective ones.

As Jacob Lew, the Treasury Secretary, put it, “America’s currency is a way for our nation to make a statement about who we are and what we stand for.”

Who we are extends into art and culture, the environment and education, social work, and while all of those overlap with politics, they’re different too.

Other countries have acknowledged that fact on their money for a long time.

The women on the Swedish krona include an opera singer and a Nobel Prize-winning writer. Turkey, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia all have women on their paper money. England plans to put the 19th-century writer Jane Austen on its 10-pound note.

Regardless of which woman winds up on our money, the discussion about it is useful.

Thinking and talking about it is a way to review history and learn it.

I was entertained by the names that popped into my mind when I pondered candidates.

What about Louisa May Alcott?

She was a feminist, abolitionist and the author of Little Women, a book that has inspired generations of plucky girls. I wouldn’t mind carrying her around in my wallet.

How about Jane Addams?

That woman did everything. She was a writer and philosopher. She campaigned for women’s right to vote. As the co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, she helped immigrants and the poor. She won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

Handing Jane Addams to a cashier would make me stand up taller.

Rosa Parks, who bravely rode that segregated bus in Alabama? She’s high on my list too.

But when the argument is over, I hope the winner is the apparent frontrunner, Harriet Tubman.

I hadn’t thought of Tubman in years, frankly, but reminded of her life — an abolitionist born to slaves — I can’t imagine anyone better to represent who we’ve been and who we hope to be.

Whoever it is, it’s good to be reminded that the cash we carry represents the stories we tell ourselves.

(Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at You can follow her on or contact her on

Photo: Elii Christman via Flickr