Image via Lawrence Jackson/”Mapping Frederick Dougless.” Courtesy of JHU.
Image via Lawrence Jackson/”Mapping Frederick Dougless.” Courtesy of JHU.

Using collected memorabilia, newspapers, census data and some 21st-century mapping software, a Hopkins English and history professor and his small team of grad students have traced the first 20 years of Frederick Douglass’ life in Maryland.

Over the course of a semester, Lawrence Jackson worked with four students to assemble four interactive maps on ArcGIS of the famed abolitionist’s young life. The first one covers Douglass’ infancy and early childhood in Talbot County, from 1818 to 1824. Two others map out his adolescence and teenagehood in Baltimore (1816-33) and on the Eastern Shore (1833-36), and the fourth chronicles three additional years back in Baltimore through 1838, preceding his hard-fought freedom.

The finished products paint detailed stories of the freed slave and scholar’s early years, according to the JHU Hub. The map of Talbot County’s Wye House plantation links to a shot of an 1827 inventory list, with the monetary values placed on Douglass and his family as slaves. He was worth $110 at age nine.

The map of his second stint in Baltimore highlights the spot at Light and Pratt streets where he boarded the very train that brought him from slavery in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Another one includes a copy of a page from The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches that inspired Douglass to pursue freedom as early as age 12, while he was working as a slave in Fells Point. He bought the book at a shop at 28 Thames Street.

Jackson and his pupils conducted their research for a semester-long seminar dubbed “Mapping Frederick Douglass.” The professor told the Hub he was inspired by digital maps tracking General Sherman’s march through Georgia during the Civil War and Harriet Tubman’s escape on the Eastern Shore.

His team put in travel time for their project, going out to the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and New York City. They even chartered a sailboat on the shore last May, traversing the same waters where Douglass considered canoeing to freedom in a stolen boat in 1836. (He wound up in jail in Easton instead.)

Unfortunately, right now only Hopkins students and faculty with access to the Sheridan Libraries can see the individual maps. However, Jackson said in a phone interview that “the idea is really democratizing the knowledge. I would like to try to get it out beyond [ArcGIS] in some format.”

He also suggested devoting another graduate seminar to the maps to build on the existing work.

The professor and his team have already shared the maps with students at Baltimore City College and Morgan State University, and he plans to present them in February at the Douglass Museum and Cultural Center in Highland Beach, Md.

A key goal, he added, is to get the city to revisit the African-American communities “that were thriving and quite consequential during [Douglass’] era” — to “return that community to the pages of history.”

This story has been updated with comment from Professor Lawrence Jackson.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...