For as short as it is — 29 days this year — February is the anniversary month for a number of notable things, including:
• 1870 — The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
• 1898 — The battleship USS Maine was blown up in Havana harbor.
• 1910 — The Boy Scouts of America was founded.
• 1942 — Internment of Japanese-Americans began during World War II.
• 1945 — The American flag was raised over Iwo Jima.
• 1960 — Four African-American students begam a sit-in at the lunch counter of a store in Greensboro, N.C. They were told to leave, but refused. Their protest spread to other Southern states.
• 1962 — Astronaut John Glenn became the first American launched into orbit.
• 1991 — The ground offensive began in Operation Desert Storm. It ended four days later.
Numerous birthdays are observed, including those of Norman Rockwell, Charles Lindbergh, Aaron Burr, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Susan B. Anthony, Babe Ruth, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Grant Wood, Buffalo Bill Cody and presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan.
Today is observed as Frederick Douglass Day, particularly in Talbot County, where Douglass was born under circumstances nobody would envy.
Douglass wasn’t sure of his birth date, or even the year, because he came into this world as a slave. Few records were kept where slaves were involved, unless they dealt with the purchase or sale of slaves. Forget about birth certificates.
Slaves did appear in the official census records, where they counted as three-fifths of a person for tax purposes and apportionment of the House of Representatives.
Douglass was born sometime around 1818 and chose to observe his birthday on Feb 14. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he adopted Douglass as his last name. His father may have been an owner of the plantation where he lived. He saw his mother only a few times and was separated from her as an infant.
One of his owners in Maryland taught Douglass to read and write, even though that was against the law. He later conveyed his literacy to other slaves at a weekly church service that was frowned upon, but tolerated at least for a time.
Douglass succeeded on his third attempt to escape slavery, helped by a black woman from Baltimore named Anna Murray. He eventually married her and began his career as an abolitionist, eventually becoming a supporter of equal rights for women. He famously said that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women didn’t have the same right.
He traveled abroad, where supporters in the British Isles helped him to raise enough money to buy his legal freedom. He became one of the most noted authors and orators of the day, one of the most eloquent Americans who lived.
Eventually, he met President Abraham Lincoln, who early on during the Civil War wanted to free the slaves, then send them to colonies in the Caribbean. Douglass and other abolitionists convinced Lincoln to change his mind, whereupon he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the states that were in rebellion and allowed blacks to join the Union Army.
Douglass was the first African-American invited to an inaugural event at the White House, following Lincoln’s election to his second term.
He had been a guest there several times, but the guards didn’t want to let him in. The president himself intervened, saying, “Here comes my friend Douglass.”
Lincoln shook his hand and said, “Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours. What do you think of it?”
Douglass told him, “Mister Lincoln, it was a sacred effort.” The two never spoke again. Less than six weeks later, Lincoln was dead. Douglass himself died on Feb. 20, 1895, and is buried in Mount Home Cemetery, Rochester, N.Y.
This past week, life-sized statues of Douglass and fellow abolitionist Harriet Tubman were unveiled in the Old House Chambers of the Maryland State House in Annapolis.
They are two of the greatest-ever Marylanders and Americans. Both escaped slavery and played incomparable roles in the fight to abolish slavery and preserve the United States as a nation, igniting the fire to establish equality for African-Americans.
Maryland’s is the oldest state capitol building that is still being used as a legislature.
Visitors, including thousands of school children who go there each year, will be able to see, touch and pose for photographs with two of our state’s heroes — just as they do with a statue of George Washington.
They belong in his company.