Last summer, during a trip to Annapolis, Maryland for a poetry reading, we discovered a gem. Just off Church Circle in historic Annapolis, sat the Banneker-Douglass Museum, a magnificent museum dedicated to the lives of two extraordinary men: Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass. I knew we had to come back for further exploration and last weekend we did. We were able to spend over an hour walking through this beautiful museum. The building itself holds significant history. The Mt. Moriah A.M.E. Church stood at this spot for decades and for many years was empty. It was scheduled to be demolished until a group of citizens organized, raised funds, and transformed the church– and the building next door– into this distinctive and rich museum.
Benjamin Banneker was a farmer and surveyor, who wrote an important almanac for farming in Maryland. He is also famous for an exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson in which Banneker, using Jefferson’s own words against him, makes a forceful argument for the abolition of slavery. Jefferson’s response was weak and pathetic. After logical and religious arguments made by Banneker, all Jefferson writes is that “…no one wishes…” for slavery to end more than he does. Quite a response. Along with the letter, Banneker sends Jefferson his almanac. I teach this set of letters in my American Literature class and the students are often moved by it, especially by Banneker’s unmet graciousness toward Jefferson, a holder of hundreds of slaves.
Probably better known than Banneker, Frederick Douglass was an important abolitionist, thinker, speaker, and writer of the nineteenth century. Born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, sent to a slave-breaker twice, Douglass was a fierce, smart, and tireless force against slavery. After his escape from slavery, he wrote and spoke with abolitionist groups all over the northeast United States. He also traveled through Ireland and England, raising funds and awareness for abolitionist groups in America. Douglass’ life was rich with honors and courage. He worked forcefully for women’s rights, served as U.S. representative to Haiti, and founded The North Star, an abolitionist journal. After Lincoln was assassinated, he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the dedication of Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. His autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a masterpiece. Below is a first edition, 1845 edition, of the book. This copy is in the museum. My American Literature students read Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Simply put, this speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric and of protest literature.
The Banneker Douglass Museum had three different exhibits on display during our visit. Its permanent collection holds many interesting historical items. Admission is free and it’s well worth leaving a generous donation. We observed an interesting exhibit on the civil rights movement. The photographs in this exhibit alone were worth the visit. There are also smaller exhibits telling detailed stories about various slaves who lived in Maryland.
The Banneker Douglass Museum is located at 84 Franklin Street, Annapolis, Maryland, just off historic Church Circle. Both of these men lived lives of such conviction. The museum stands as an honor and monument to them both.