Expansion & Reconstruction
Third time's a charm with frederick douglass
AMELIA WALKED INTO class visibly upset, taking her seat quickly.
“It’s not fair,” Amelia told me. Turning in her seat, she focused on a thin fog rolling outside of the classroom windows like a lonely voice wanting to be heard. “Mr. Franklin, I just hate being told that I can’t do something.”
Taking a sip of my coffee, I waited a few seconds before I answered Amelia. I understood her anger. “Principal Kermugin thinks the students of this school lack the brain capacity to put their shoes on the right feet.”
To my surprise, Amelia slammed her fist down onto her desk. “All I asked her was the chance to begin a morning news program over the intercom. Ten minutes, Mr. Franklin, just ten minutes a morning to report the news while students make their way to class.” A tear dropped from her eye. Wiping at the tear with a furious hand, she kept her gaze on the fog. “She treated me like I was just plain stupid.”
The classroom door was rustled ajar and I braced myself, expecting to see Principal Kermugin enter in a heated flame of anger. Instead, Raven casually strolled in. Giving me a strange look, she paused in the doorway.
“You okay, Mr. Franklin? Did I do something wrong?”
I smiled in relief. “No, no,” I said. I then whispered, “I was expecting to see the enemy.”
Raven looked over her shoulder into the hallway. “Haven’t seen her all day.” She grinned and closed the classroom door softly. Noticing Amelia’s somber mood, she scampered over to her. “Hey, there, what’s wrong?” She stroked her arm.
Amelia wiped at her tears with her sleeve, saturating it. With an uneven voice, she explained her problems to Raven.
Raven’s brow furrowed. The red in her cheeks equaled her burgundy sweater. “She can’t treat you like that, not my best friend.”
Picking up my mug, I took another sip of coffee. “Listen, girls, Jax and Moe are not going to be able to join us today. They’re helping their coach out in the gym do some morning inventory on the football equipment. While we have the time, why don’t we take a little field trip? There’s someone I would like you to meet.”
“I don’t know,” Amelia told me sadly. “I’m not really in the mood to think about slavery this morning, Mr. Franklin. I know the subject is important, and we’re learning a lot, but my heart feels too blue.”
Raven put her hand on Amelia’s shoulder. “Don’t you see? In a way, Principal Kermugin is treating you like a slave. She told you that you can’t report the news because you aren’t mature enough.”
“More like not smart enough,” Amelia declared.
“Either way, she suppressed your rights,” Raven said passionately. “Just because she won this battle doesn’t mean we won’t win the war. You can’t allow her to get away with it.”
Amelia’s eyes widened. “You’re right, Raven. I guess I let my emotions blind me to the truth.”
“And it won’t be the last time.” Raven patted Amelia on the shoulder. “My emotions get in the way all the time.”
“Can you check the hallway,” I asked Raven, taking the gold timepiece that Benjamin Franklin had given me from my front pocket.
Raven ran over to the classroom door, cautiously opened it, and peeked out into the hallway.
“Is it clear?” I asked.
“I don’t see her,” Raven said with a thumbs up and closed the door.
“Okay,” I said, standing up from my desk, “let’s go.”
I smiled and rubbed the back of the timepiece, my thumb grazing Franklin’s engraved signature. Dropping off into the roller coaster darkness, a bright light barreled toward us like a freight train. I landed hard on my backside. “Ouch!”
Amelia and Raven giggled, watching me rub my backside on my hands and knees. “You never get it right, Mr. Franklin,” Raven said. “You gotta be quick like a cat. We always land on our feet.”
“Yes, that’s the problem, the older I get, the slower I get,” I complained, coming to my feet. A cold and icy wind slapped at my face in waves. A thick brown coat hung heavy over my shoulders and a pair of brown pants were snug around my legs. Clunky black boots protected my feet from the weather. Amelia and Raven wore thick white coats over pink dresses.
“Where are we?” Amelia asked through chattering teeth.
Standing ankle deep in snow, I looked around. We were standing in the middle of a large field surrounded by beautiful, snow-covered woods humming to the hand of winter in harmony even though the air was freezing. In the distance, a man stood wearing a black coat with his arms shoved deep into his pockets. He didn’t seem cold. Instead, he seemed to be deep in thought.
“Who is that?” Raven asked hugging her arms together.
“That is Frederick Douglass,” I said, “a fascinating man. Come on, girls.”
Dredging through the ankle deep snow, we approached Mr. Douglass, one of my steps being matched by three of the girls’.
“Can I help you, sir?” he asked sternly without turning around.
“My name is Waldo Franklin, and these two young ladies are my students,” I explained. “I brought them here to meet you. I think there is a great deal that they can learn from you, Mr. Douglass.”
Turning his head over his shoulder, Mr. Douglass studied Raven and Amelia. “You girls don’t belong out here in this cold.”
“You’re telling me,” Raven agreed, shivering. “It sure is cold, Mr. Douglass.”
“Your real name is Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey,” I remarked. “When you became free, you took the surname of Douglass and got rid of your two middle names.”
Turning and squaring his shoulders to mine, he glared at me suspiciously. “You seem to know a lot about me, teacher.”
“It’s all for them,” I replied, signaling to Amelia and Raven. “I know that on September 3, 1838, you managed to escape and gain your freedom by getting on a Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore train. That train took you to a city in the north. You tried to escape two times, once is 1836 and then again in 1837, but failed.”
“Third time is a charm,” Raven smiled through her shivering teeth.
“No,” Mr. Douglass corrected Raven, “charm and luck had nothing to do with me obtaining my freedom, young lady. The desire for the heart to be free, that is what granted me my freedom. You must understand; I was born a slave, young ladies. But no man is meant to be another man’s slave.”
“We know,” Amelia said, hugging her shoulders. “Mr. Douglass, I’m so happy you’re free. We learned that slavery isn’t about skin color but about ideas; the idea that one man is above another man.”
“I am a statesman, an orator, and a writer,” he said humbly. “I am also the leader of the abolitionist movement. People believed slaves don’t possess the intelligence to be able to function and live as free and independent citizens. I proved them wrong. Many people in these northern parts struggle to believe that I was once a slave. It is up to individuals, regardless of his or her skin color, to take the liberty that is theirs. Everyone deserves that right.”
“You’re so brilliant,” Amelia said.
“He is brilliant,” I agreed. Gazing into Frederick Douglass’s face. He was a man of great determination—but also of peace and gentleness. “Mr. Douglass has written two autobiographies. One is called Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. That writing became a bestseller and helped influence and support abolition.”
“A regular wordsmith,” Raven said proudly as a gentle snow began to fall. In the distance, the sun began to fall below the horizon. The temperature began to drop even more.
“The second autobiography Mr. Douglass wrote was titled My Bondage and My Freedom,” I finished.
He studied me carefully. “You know a great deal about me and my work. I’m impressed, teacher.”
“Your writings are very important to us,” I told him.
Raising a hand to his face, he touched his cold skin. “It’s not about skin color,” he explained. “I once said that I would unite with anybody to do the right thing and with nobody to do wrong. Every man deserves to be free. My work just wasn’t for the African American slaves; it was for all people. My path to education was not simple. But because I persevered, I overcame what I was born into. I am able to write my words today because I did not let my heart sip from the cup of defeat.”
Hesitantly, Amelia scampered forward in the snow and took Frederick Douglass’s hand into her own. “You seem sad after all that you’ve achieved,” she said, staring up into his face.
“I was thinking about my mother, young lady,” he replied, his words wet with grief. “My mother died when I was around ten years of age. I remember her as a slave and I regret not having memories of her as a free woman. My memories are torn between the times I was a slave and the times now, when I am free.”
“I’m so sorry,” cried Amelia, her head turning down to the ground, still holding his hand. “Your mother would be proud of you, Mr. Douglass; I’m sure of that.”
Raven moved forward and took his other hand. “I agree with Amelia.”
Frederick Douglass nodded his head toward the horizon, holding back tears. “Young ladies, in the distance, beyond this silence, a horrible war is waking up. I am troubled by this war, yet I have hope that this war will change the face of this country for the better. I was thinking of my mother not because I am sad but because I want her to know that soon all men will be free. At the cost of how much death and misery? I do not pretend to know. I’m afraid a great deal of men must die before all men are free.”
“Mr. Douglass is very famous in this time,” I explained, stepping up beside Amelia. “He is the most famous black man in the country. A man who was born into slavery has become respected and loved, proving that the door man creates to separate men can be torn down by the passions of the heart.”
“It wasn’t my body that was born into slavery.” He squeezed Amelia and Raven’s hands. “It was my mind and heart. When the mind and heart become enslaved, that is when you truly become a slave. When a person loses their freedom to live free within their own heart, they are dead. Never allow a person to suppress your freedom. Fight, fight with all of your heart because that is all we have.”
“I was told that I couldn’t report the news because I’m not mature enough. In other words, I’m just stupid,” Amelia told him. Raising a foot, she kicked at the snow.
“Young lady, another form of slavery is silence. No one can force you to speak, but when you are silent, you become a slave. If you were denied the right to do something you firmly believe in, then you must fight for it.”
“You tell her, Mr. Douglass,” Raven said happily as the snow began to fall even harder. “Amelia is my best friend, and I hate to see her upset.”
He let go of Raven’s hand. Gently, he kneeled before Amelia and looked into her face with caring eyes. “Young lady, my path to freedom was plagued with hardships. My heart is plagued with horrible memories. Yet, I move forward because it is my responsibility. I am not free just for myself. I must be free for everyone who is enslaved, whoever and wherever they are. Skin color is not the topic, young lady; it’s the heart and mind that is at stake. If you let your heart taste defeat, you are letting others that will come after you taste from the same table. Can you understand that?”
Amelia’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir, I understand,” she promised him.
Smiling, he rose to his feet. Gazing out at the darkening horizon, he took a deep breath of the icy air. “Now, teacher, take the young ladies back home. It’s getting entirely too cold out here for them.”
“Before we go, I have one question,” I said.
“What is freedom?” I asked.
Frederick Douglass touched his head and then his heart. “This is freedom. What’s in your heart and what’s in your head.”
Grinning from ear to ear, I walked Amelia and Raven away. Taking the gold timepiece from my pocket, I set the day and month. “I told you he was special,” I said, rubbing the back of the timepiece.
Landing back in our classroom, Raven and I hugged the heat coming from the central heat and air system. Amelia quickly jumped to her feet.
“Where are you going?” Raven asked.
“Look,” Amelia explained with fiery passion, “Principal Kermugin refused to let me use the school PA system to report the news, right?”
“Right,” Raven agreed, smiling at the fight in Amelia’s eyes. She knew Amelia was ready to enter round two of the fight.
“But I have a Youtube account. I can report the news and post it on my account. Students can watch the news at home before coming to school,” Amelia determinedly finished. “I know getting a bunch of sleepy students to watch my broadcast won’t be easy, but I’ll catch an audience, wait and see. And Principal Kermugin can’t censor what I report because I won’t be on school property.”
“You go, girl,” Raven exclaimed. Hurrying over to Amelia, she grabbed her shoulders. “Can I help? I’ll be your co-anchor!”
The classroom door opened and Moe and Jax walked in.
“You can all help,” Amelia said to everyone. “We’ll be a real news team. Moe can do sports. Jax can do the weather, and we’ll do the news.”
“Oh man,” Jax griped, “what now?”
Moe scratched the back of his head. “Something tells me we should have stayed in the gym.”
“The first news story will be on Frederick Douglass,” Amelia said excitedly. “Mr. Franklin, we’re going to use history to teach the present. With every news story we report, we’re going to show how history still affects us if we’re willing to learn.”
“I don’t know,” I told her setting a dare before her. “Many people don’t like the past being brought up. You might shake the hornets’ nest. Many people don’t want to remember Frederick Douglass, and if they do, they don’t want to remember him the right way.”
“If we don’t keep the past alive in its truth, Mr. Franklin, then tomorrow will be nothing but lies. I have to bring the truth of the past into my news reports,” she said back to me bravely.
“Go get ’em, tiger. We all support you one-hundred percent.”
“Third time is a charm,” Raven whispered in Amelia’s ear.
“Not charm,” Amelia declared back. “The passion of the heart is what makes us free. If the heartbeat of the past dies, then the heart of tomorrow becomes a slave.”
Raven smiled. “Mr. Douglass would be proud of you.”
“I’m sure proud of him.”