On November 18, the University of Maryland dedicated Frederick Douglass Square on campus with a formal ceremony and statue unveiling. A few days earlier, however, students had already unofficially christened it, gathering in the square to stand in solidarity with the students at the University of Missouri whose protests for social justice on campus took the nation by storm.
In front of the campus library, a 7½-foot-tall bronze statue of an urgent and youthful Douglass in Ireland, created by renowned sculptor Andrew Edwards, stands amid stone pavers and a vertical Corten steel wall, both engraved with the words of Douglass.
Dr. Ira Berlin, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the university, started a campaign five years ago to honor Douglass ― who would have been ineligible to attend the university, though he had won his freedom by the time it opened its doors in 1859.
Berlin said he and then-Assistant Vice President for Undergraduate Admissions and Enrollment Planning Barbara Gill “realized there was nothing on our campus, absolutely nothing, not a building, not a room, nor a plaque that honored” one of the greatest men in Maryland history, and noted that the omission “was an embarrassment or more.”
Thus Berlin and Gill sought out to rectify this “embarrassment.”
“Some agreed, some didn’t agree” with their efforts, Berlin said.
“I remember that someone asked me if Douglass was an alumnus of the university, and I explained that he was otherwise occupied in slavery,” the professor quipped, before acknowledging that Douglass was actually not enslaved when the university doors opened.
“We eventually gathered a group, lots of doors were slammed in our face, but we also got a little bit lucky finding a perfect spot on campus and the librarian was very much anxious to host Douglass Square” in front of the library, he said.
“It was really kind of the sense that here was this great Marylander, this is the flagship institution of the state,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “We should be representing not just this campus, but the state and some of the best that came from the state, and also the fact that he was an African-American leader and abolitionist, and really one of the people at the forefront of eliminating slavery, and a statesman and many, many different kinds of things, we just thought that that kind of recognition would be important here.”
“The way I think of it is that Douglass personified in his rhetoric, in his writing all of the values that we profess to believe at the University of Maryland,” Berlin said. “He was for self-education and advancement. He was for women’s rights, he was for equality, he was for self-improvement. He was for education, he was for the role of immigrants and Native Americans and other minorities in the state, and we profess to believe all of those things as well, although Douglass probably said them better than we do, so he was a natural choice of somebody who we would like to represent us.”
The climate of the nation ― one in which students at many universities are grasping for some similar types of recognition and inclusion in the fabrics of their universities ― hung over last week’s dedication ceremony. In some ways, it painted Maryland and its flagship campus as an exemplar of diversity and inclusion, but in many others, it served as an ironic contradiction of the state’s own participation in the limited opportunities for and representations of Black students within its borders.
“I think as far as the university goes, I think there is a kind of general feeling that Maryland might be a different place than, say, Missouri,” said Berlin, who acknowledged “there is also dissatisfaction as well, as there [is] in other places,” citing a movement to rename the campus stadium that bears the name of former football player, coach, athletic director and university President Curley Byrd, whom Berlin called both “a guy of considerable accomplishment” and “a nasty segregationist.”
Byrd perhaps best personifies the duality that entangles the state ― and the nation ― as it relates to its legacy on race in higher education.
“I think it’s clear that Maryland does not have a glorious history with regard to racial segregation,” said Dill, who acknowledged that “Maryland certainly was one of the states that was used as a test case … in developing a series of cases around the country to affect the 1954 Supreme Court decision [in Brown v. Board of Education]. So it definitely followed the principles of Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal.”
“That is our history,” she added, saying that the state has attempted to remedy some of this history, by way of fights for affirmative action scholarships and other programs to expand access to the university, but admits “that commitment to change came later. So we have a legacy that we are very aware of and people are becoming increasingly aware of and wanting to address in the context of the changing climate and values that govern us as a university today.”
But Dr. Earl S. Richardson, president emeritus of Morgan State University and a key figure in the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education ― which is presently engaged in a fight against the state over the unfair program duplication and inadequate funding of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities — said not enough has been done by way of that commitment to change.
“Maryland is a Southern state, and it is something that we can’t deny, not only in our politics, but in much of our attitude,” said Richardson.
“I think it is a noble gesture on [Maryland President Wallace] Loh’s part to first of all think of naming something that would better reflect the history of the state. But when you put it in the context, talking about its attempt to shed the image of Curley Byrd as a separatist and his history, not only at the university, but in Maryland in general, I think that doing that at the very same time that you are in court fighting desegregation is sort of ironic, and it suggests some level of insincerity on the part of the university,” Richardson continued.
“If we were talking about [being] in court fighting [against] segregation at the same time, that would be consistent for me, but it is inconsistent that [you are fighting against a court that has ruled the state is] continuing the dual system because of the unnecessary duplication between Black colleges and White colleges” ― which is inherently segregationist ― “and then to interpret [a gesture such as the dedication of a square in honor of a great Black abolitionist] as … an attempt to shed the image of segregation is, I think, a little inconsistent,” he said.
Last week, the Maryland Higher Education Commission offered its proposal to remedy the separate but equal system of education that Judge Catherine Blake found it illegally maintaining, via rampant program duplication, which severely depleted the enrollment at the state’s public historically Black colleges and universities.
The proposal, Richardson said, does not go nearly far enough to address the systemic and persistent inequalities levied against Coppin State, Morgan State and Bowie State universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“Nothing that has been offered will address the issues highlighted by the court as unconstitutional, which is unnecessary duplication,” he said.
“Get[ting] rid of the duplication is the [only] way you address the violation of duplication,” he continued, adding intrinsic in this mandate is “establishing the historically Black universities to be comparable and competitive for students, faculty in all respects.”
Instead, Richardson said, the commission’s proposal “raises issues that were supposedly settled in the trial. For example, they continue to raise the issue of … the judge’s interpretation of unnecessary duplication.”
Richardson acknowledges that “the state is in a very difficult position.”
“I think that they have built a system on a segregated model … one that has attempted to circumvent Brown, circumvent [the Civil Rights Act of 1964], circumvent Fordice, and in the attempt has now been deemed to preserve, rather than eliminate segregation,” he said, adding that the commission’s recommendation “offered nothing that would undo that.”
“They’re promoting a segregated model in an era of desegregation,” Richardson said of the state’s higher ed commission. “It doesn’t matter what they say, it’s what is happening.”
Dill said that, for the university’s sake, administrators hope “that putting this statue on our campus in a prominent place challenges us to recommit and renew and work even more vigorously toward the ideals that [Douglass] espoused.”
“I think as far as the university goes, I think there is kind of a universal embrace of Douglass; I think most people feel really, really good about Frederick Douglass Square,” said Berlin.
“One of the wonderful things that’s happened since the creation of Frederick Douglass Square is that the students themselves ― without the prompting of anyone ― have made this the site of various gatherings of social justice, and that is more than we really could have hoped for, so we’re really pleased at how Frederick Douglass has come to be a significant figure and Frederick Douglass Square a significant place on our campus,” he added.
Berlin acknowledged that many on campus are still trying to reconcile the university’s history ― part of Charles Calvert’s plantation, on which slaves worked, was donated to found the university.
“I think there have been administrators as well as others who have been committed to dealing with what was once a segregated university and trying to live down that reputation and make it” a more welcoming place for all students, he said.
“It is something else in the sense that [UMD] has a Black student body which [is proportionate to] the Black population of the state. That’s a considerable accomplishment for a university that was once a segregated university, and it didn’t happen by accident,” Berlin added.
“I think that there are still lots of problems,” he continued, but said “the creation of Frederick Douglass Square is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened at this university since I’ve been here. It’s clearly going to be at the center of the students’ political life.”