How Local History Can Save America — The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Frederick Douglass

How can Americans still share a common story, we ask as we struggle through an information revolution, the slaughter of local journalism, and the politicization of historical memory. Where’s the rich, nuanced, national history we need to move forward? Or is that just one more thing that’s been lost?

As my friend and former Wall Street Journal colleague Neil King reminds us in this stirring historical essay published in the Talbot Spy, a sharp local news website based in Talbot, on the Eastern shore of Maryland, local history humanizes and humbles all of us as we stand together in certain defeat against the passage of time.

Neil’s essay is about a famous episode in the life of Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century Black writer, statesman, and abolitionist. When he was 16, imprisoned on a farm in Maryland near where Neil has been camped out during the Covid pandemic, Douglass fought back against his white overseer, a brutal tenant farmer named Edward Napoleon Covey.

The two fought to exhaustion, to a standstill—after which, Douglass says, Covey never touched him again. “I was nothing before; I was a man now,” Douglass said of the fight. “His travail under Covey’s yoke became Douglass’s crucifixion and resurrection,” Yale professor David Blight wrote in his seminal biography of Douglass.

Astonishingly, no sign marks the incident — it’s just a “long rectangle of soggy corn stalks girded on one side by telephone wires and on the other by the eroding shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay” — in contrast to the monument close to Neil’s home in Washington, which features a statue of “a benevolent Lincoln holding his hand above a kneeling enslaved Black man that he has just freed.”

The latter is Big History, national history, and Neil challenges us to wonder: Isn’t local history a clearer look at the truth, at what actually happened to the humans involved? “We should tip our national memory away from statues and monuments and towards the remembrance of place,” he writes. “To preserve the memory, however painful, of what happened where.”

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The paradox is that keeping local history alive and vibrant actually helps build shared national narratives. In Moundsville, people celebrate their town’s connections to George Brett, Lady Gaga, and even Charles Manson, because those stories make them feel like they’re part of wider American popular culture.

In Maryland, celebrating the ground where Frederick Douglass stood and fought, which hopefully will happen following Neil’s essay, would foster a community of Douglass enthusiasts, including white residents who might otherwise dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement because it feels so remote, so foreign to their lives. But place can connect 21st century white Maryland residents to a 19th-century Black hero, when what happened on the ground beneath the feat of both was so obviously heroic– and human.

(I grew up in Belgium, but my maternal grandparents lived on Tilghman Island. In my dozens of visits, I’d never heard anything about Frederick Douglass. There were no signs to point to from a passing car, no story launched for the retelling.)

America doesn’t just have a political crisis. It also has a news and storytelling crisis. We live in a cloudy information haze, overwhelmed by billions of options and somehow unable to figure out what, where and who to believe. For those of us who are professional journalists and storytellers, this is also a crisis. Money, talent and capital has concentrated itself in a few big cities, and it’s the nature of writing from New York and Washington to look for sweeping narratives, theories and concepts to explain this moment to readers, listeners and viewers. What that kind of journalism has a hard time doing is admitting that reality is very complex, that there are all kinds of heroes, and that many things can be true at the same time.

Neil says he initially pitched the Douglass piece “to a few national editors, who said it didn’t really fit their wheelhouse at the moment” so he “decided to go local, and cold-called the editor of the Talbot Spy, Dave Wheelan, who has a built a fine series of publications that serve the greater Chesapeake area, the territory where the story largely takes place.”

Dave and Neil put together a package that features the 3,500-word essay along with 10 stunning black and white photos by photographer Jeff McGuiness. In a note, publisher Wheelan called it “a masterful piece of writing.” The enterprise, he adds, moved the Spy to design “an entirely new format to present such stellar work. Devoid of ads and other possible distractions, our new Saturday feature column has been created with larger fonts, sharper images, and more generous white space to match this powerful long-form content.” Big picture: By taking his WSJ talents to Talbot, Neil elevated local storytelling for others who will follow.

Wrote Neil on Facebook: “My maxim of the moment: Do it big, and take it local.”

And publish and create, like Amanda Page is doing in Portsmouth, Ohio, Steve Novotney with Lede News in Wheeling, WV, Douglas Imbrogno with WestVirginiaVille, and a thousand others pioneering new ways of local storytelling. It’s never been cheaper to publish stories available to billions. If you know how, be like Neil; find local stories and tell them well.

The truth, what actually happened, is a common story.

John W. Miller

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