Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magana

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader and . A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He also works full-time as an office manager at Urban Ore in West Berkeley. He lives in North Oakland with his wife and son and books and records.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

Frederick Douglass, Easton and St. Michaels, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 2

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Easton, MD at South & Hanson Sts

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Easton, MD at South & Hanson Sts

Second day, Monday March 21st, continued

When I left you last, I was telling you the story of finding Frederick Douglass’ birthplace, and how moving an experience it was for me…

After a short while, I pull myself back out of the reverie I’ve fallen into; I have lots of places to visit today, and must get a move on. I head back to downtown Easton and begin my tour here on Hanson Rd, between South Lane and South Street, where Bethel A.M.E. Church stands on the east side of the street. The congregation had first assembled in 1818, the year that Douglass was born. When Douglass returned to Easton in 1878, he dedicated this new church building; what a consecration!

Archaeology at Bethel A.M.E. sign, Easton, MA

Archaeology at Bethel A.M.E. Church sign, Easton, MA

A statue of Frederick Douglass outside of the Talbot County Courthouse in Easton, courtesy Preservation Maryland, Creative Commons

A statue of Frederick Douglass outside of the Talbot County Courthouse in Easton, courtesy Preservation Maryland, Creative Commons

When Douglass returned here in 1878 to rediscover his birthplace, he also visited central Easton and gave speeches, including a famous one in front of the courthouse at Federal and West Streets. There’s a very handsome statue of him there.

Unfortunately… I forget to visit the front of the courthouse and photograph it! Throughout this trip, I discover, or remember, that from time to time I miss something, and like today, something important or exciting. This especially happens when I’m distracted with the effort of finding obscure sites, like Douglass’s birthplace this morning. I wish I had more than two weeks for this tour so I don’t find myself so often in a rush! But I shake off my disappointment: I’m seeing so many wonderful things, and learning so much on this trip. And fortunately, there are so many others out there who share my admiration for Douglass, who follow and share his history too. I’m in their debt, and couldn’t do this trip without them. And after all, I was at the courthouse, just off to the side and around the back.

Here’s another great photo by one such person for you to check out, and a little more about the speech Douglass gave here on November 25th.

Sheriff's House and Jail in Easton, MD, c. 1881

Sheriff’s House and Jail in Easton, MD, c. 1881

After Bethel A.M.E., I head to a building that stands right behind the very courthouse I forget to photograph. In 1836, Douglass planned an escape with his friends while he was working at William Freeland’s farm. Their plans were discovered, likely reported by one of the early participants who let his fear overcome him. They were thrown in the Easton jail at this site, which he described as more roomy and comfortable than he expected a jail to be, but with heavy iron latticework covering the windows. He also described the ugly feeling of being inspected by slave traders, who would opportunistically arrive when slaves were imprisoned there in hopes of picking up new ‘wares’ that masters had found too troublesome. Those slave traders were looked down upon, even despised, though this was a slave society. It’s one of the more unfortunate foibles of human nature that people will despise those who do the very work they benefit from and even require, when they don’t want to dirty their own hands with it. But back to the Easton jail… the building which stands here today is the 1881 granite jail and Sheriff’s house that replaced the original, which had been built in 1710.

Frederick Douglass dedication sign on Highway 33 between Easton & St Michael's

Frederick Douglass dedication sign on Highway 33 between Easton & St Michaels

I leave Easton and head for St. Michaels.

On the way there, I first see a sign dedicating Highway 33 to Douglass. In 1877, 1878, and 1892, Douglass returned to the Easton and St. Michaels area. This is the main highway between them now; did he take this very road, I wonder? A little further down the road, St Michaels welcome sign includes the motto ‘The Town That Fooled the British’. I wonder what that refers to and I look it up. Here’s the story. It’s a good one.

Frederick Douglass sign, St. Michaels, MD

Frederick Douglass sign, St. Michaels, MD

I park at the municipal parking lot at the west end of town and find myself right by this sign. Perfect!

I stop in at the 1812 Bar and Grill right there at Talbot and Mill, have a chat with the nice lady who lets me to leave my phone with her to charge while I go on my tour. I’ll be back for an afternoon ale.

Dodson House, two views, site of 1877 Auld and Douglass reconciliation

Dodson House, two views, site of 1877 Auld and Douglass reconciliation

I start with a long red brick house on Cherry Street now called Dodson House and now a bed and breakfast, originally built in 1799 and expanded in 1872. The house’s given address is 200 Cherry St, though its long front faces onto Locust St.

You can see where the house was nearly doubled in size: the seam is clearly visible, with the dates of construction now helpfully marked on the front of the house. Douglass lived here when he was brought back from Baltimore at age 15. Thomas Auld, who owned Douglass (always feels creepy to refer to someone owning someone else), had a falling out with his brother Hugh for a time, and as punishment, took Douglass away from their service and back to the East Shore in 1833, for three years until they made up again. Douglass had become accustomed to a certain amount of personal freedom and plentiful food, both of which he was regularly deprived of back over here on the Eastern Shore, and Douglass did not keep his feelings of displeasure entirely secret. Over time, Auld became so upset at Douglass’ insubordination and evident lack of respect that he eventually sent him away for a year to suffer worse conditions, more on this shortly.

Dodson House, formerly the Auld House on Cherry St, Easton, MD

Dodson House, formerly the Auld House, on Cherry St, Easton, MD

Douglass also returned to this house for a visit many years later in 1877 to make peace with Thomas Auld, who was in failing health by the time. Auld had objected to Douglass’ characterization of him in his Narrative as a cruel and heartless man. Douglass originally thought his grandmother belonged to Auld after Colonel Lloyd’s death, and when she was abandoned to fend for herself in a shabby cabin when too old to work, he thought this indicative of bad character on Auld’s part. However, as Douglass acknowledged in this interview, in a public letter in 1849, and many times afterwards, he was mistaken: his grandmother was actually willed to another Anthony relative.

But, as Douglass pointed out, Auld only took her in to care for her after Douglass’ story subjected Auld to widespread criticism. This didn’t change the fact that slaves were routinely treated badly under the same system of slavery Auld took part in, especially given that many didn’t know or care to find out how their overseers or relatives treated them as long as the work got done and the money came in. But still, Douglass acknowledged that Auld wasn’t directly responsible in this case, that Auld and his family had treated their slaves much better in later years, and that it was the system itself that was ultimately responsible for his grandmother’s plight. The two men shook hands and reconciled, and Auld died soon after.

Old St Luke's Methodist Church in St Michael's, MD

Old St Luke’s Methodist Church in St Michaels, MD

Then I head east to the big St Luke’s United Methodist church on Talbot St. St Michaels’ walking tour map, published by St Michaels Museum, says the Auld family is buried here. I see a lot of the same names on gravestones in this cemetery, some of which appear also in the big Christ Church burial ground across the street: Caulks, Harrisons, Jeffersons, Dodsons, Jones’, and so forth. Search as I might, I can’t find any Auld grave markers. The doors of the church rectory are unlocked but there are no staff inside to answer my inquiries, and the electrician working there doesn’t think there’s a grave map available; he mentions he has a couple of friends buried there. I do find Bruffs, who were related to the Aulds; around here, you’ll see that name pop up a lot, including once again in this account.

Granite Lodge in St. Mary's Square, St Michaels, MD

Granite Lodge in St. Mary’s Square, St Michaels, MD

Then I head across the street and back around the next short block to St. Mary’s Square. I find Granite Lodge, a brick building which replaces an earlier structure that served as the first Methodist church in St Michaels. Douglass likely attended church here at least sometimes with the Auld family.

By the way, Easton and St Michaels are both adorable towns. I love that East Coast look, so different from my native California.

Mt Misery Rd sign and possible William Freeland's farm site, St Michaels MD

Mt Misery Rd sign and possible William Freeland’s farm site, St Michaels MD

A farm near what was formerly William Freeland's, St Michaels, MD

A farm near what was formerly William Freeland’s, St Michaels, MD

Then to Mount Pleasant Road via Railroad, southwest of St Michaels. I pass Mt Misery Rd, and take photos of some of the land around here which at one time was owned by William Freeland.

Douglass came here in January of 1834 to work for Freeland before he was sent back to Baltimore in late 1836. While Douglass thought Freeland by far the fairest and most lenient slaveowner he had ever known, the experience of even a modicum of decency in life actually made him more determined to be free, making him feel more keenly what he was missing. He made his first attempt to escape to the north in his second year there, which got him thrown into Easton jail in 1836 as discussed above. The escape attempt, at least in part, convinced Auld that Douglass would be better off in Baltimore after all, and more likely to stay put because he had been happier there. Besides, in the meantime, he had made up with his brother Hugh.

An old advertisement for the sale of Freeland’s land describes it as part farmland, part woods, as it is here today, and the description of the location and its proximity to these roads indicate it was right around here.

Entrance to Mt. Misery, formerly Edward Covey's farm, St Michaels MD

Entrance to Mt. Misery, formerly Edward Covey’s farm, St Michaels MD

Then back to Mt Misery Rd and turning west, I take it to where it bends sharply to the left, then pull over and park. Straight ahead of me is the drive to Mt. Misery, onetime slavebreaker Edward Covey’s farm. Unfortunately, it’s now private property; for many years, it was a bed and breakfast open to the public. Donald Rumsfeld bought this property for a vacation home in 2006, which was rather controversial. I’m not going to speculate on his motivations, since I have no way of knowing what he was thinking. I do hope that he decides, in a noble gesture and to improve or enhance his legacy, to donate it to the state, the National Park Service, or some other organization so that it can be open to the public once again. After all, it’s a historical site of great emotional significance to many.

Mt Misery Farmhouse from the driveway entrance

Mt Misery farmhouse from the driveway entrance

So especially being that it belongs to a wealthy and powerful political figure, I’m going to heed the ‘private drive’ sign and not go up to the house. I wouldn’t go up anyway, I do believe people have a right to privacy in their own home. Besides, getting arrested would get in the way of my trip, though I’m sure that’s unlikely, I still wouldn’t recommend taking the risk. There are many photos of the house online, and besides, my video camera has good zoom and takes photos, so at least we can get a peek.

Another view of Mt Misery farmhouse from the driveway entrance

Another view of Mt Misery farmhouse from the driveway entrance

As I mentioned earlier, Douglass’ attitude of evident displeasure and disrespect on his condition of life here on the East Shore, as compared to his relatively happy life in Baltimore, grated on Auld. In Baltimore he was well fed and clothed, he could improve his reading and writing skills (though on the sly), edify his piety (he had a religious awakening in his mid teens), and spend time with the neighborhood boys when his work was done. None of this was true for him back in St Michaels. Douglass was unhappy, and really let it show.

So, Auld sent Douglass away at the age of 16 to work at Covey’s for a year, to learn his lesson, so to speak. The work was hard, the conditions awful, and Douglass did begin to feel that his spirit was beginning to break. But, it never really did. One day, Douglass decided he could take no more, and refused to submit to another flogging. When Covey tried to physically subdue him, Douglass stood his ground. Though he was only about 16, Covey could not overcome Douglass’ wiry strength, made more so by the heavy manual labor he had been doing since leaving Baltimore. This was when, Douglass wrote, he became a man.

Unionville on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a settlement of black Union army veterans and freed black people

Unionville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a settlement of black Union army veterans and freed black people

On Highway 370 heading north to my next destination, my attention is caught by the historical marker sign for the small town of Unionville that I pass through. Douglass was very much involved with Abraham Lincoln’s decision to finally allow the Union Army to enlist black soldiers, more on this in upcoming accounts. Some of these veterans settled here; I hope they found good rest and a happy life in this pretty and peaceful place.

Gateway to Wye House of the former plantation of Colonel Lloyd, Easton MD

Gateway to Wye House of the former plantation of Colonel Lloyd at about 25780 Bruffs Island Rd, Easton MD

I arrive at the driveway to Wye Farm and then, just past it, the gates to Wye House of the erstwhile Colonel Lloyd’s plantation. Again, the drive is marked ‘private’, and I respect it. In my research, I’ve seen many articles that talk about educational tours of this house for school groups, scholars, and so on, but I’m not here long enough to make arrangements for this. Until just a few years ago, Wye House was owned by a philanthropist, historian and member of the Lloyd family who died in 2012. How this affects the ease of arranging a tour today I’m not sure. You see the house much more clearly here than you can in the zoom photo I take today.

Aaron Anthony, Douglass’ owner and possible father, it was rumored, was an overseer for Lloyd, who owned vast tracts of land and was very wealthy. Anthony’s own slaves often worked for Lloyd as well. Douglass was employed only very lightly here at the ‘Big House’, since he was sent to Baltimore when only about seven or eight. Child slaves were not sent out to do hard work until their bodies were considered mature enough to handle it, which I’m sure was a much younger age than we’d consider acceptable today.

Near the former site of the Baltimore Branch of the Freedman's Bank

Near the former site of the Baltimore Branch of the Freedman’s Bank

I head my way back to Baltimore from the East Shore, I swing by the area where the Baltimore Branch of the Freedmen’s Savings Bank used to be on 7th St. The wonderfully helpful Toni from the Mapping the Freedmen’s Bureau website found an old ad for the bank in response to my request for its location.

Cross streets near Baltimore's Freedman's Bank site

Cross streets near Baltimore’s Freedman’s Bank site

I find more than one 7th St in Baltimore, but neither seems to be in the right area since they would have been too far from 1870’s commercial areas. I do find another 7th street in an early map of Baltimore which no longer exists; it was off and to the north of Fort Ave, east of Covington. These are the two main streets that have remained where they are with the same names as they had in Douglass’ time. The closest street to the original, which appears to no longer be there since there are only two streets here where there used to be three differently placed ones, is narrow Belt St., just above Hyson and below E. Clement.

In March 1874, Douglass was named President of the Freedman’s Bank, headquartered on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC since 1867. The first branch opened here. It was a private bank chartered by the US government and supported by Lincoln, and it was supposed to help freed slaves and their families gain economic independence. For a while at least, it accomplished its mission very well. However, poor management and political and corporate corruption left it heavily in debt and on the verge of collapse. Despite his best efforts, Douglass could not save the bank, and from this experience, and learned just how corrupt the political and financial system of the United States had really become.

So ends my tour of the East Shore and last Baltimore site, an eventful, exciting, and long day of exploration. Stay tuned for my next adventure!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

The American Farmer, Vol. IV‘. Agricultural journal published 1848 by Samuel Sands, Baltimore, MD.

Away From Home: Frederick Douglass Statue‘. Dec 20, 2014, InForum.com

Burgoyne, Mindie. ‘A Bike Ride to Mount Misery – Hello, Rummy!’ Travel Hag blogAway From Home: Frederick Douglass statue

Capt. Aaron Anthony (b. circa 1766 – d. 1826): Property Owner, Talbot County, Maryland‘. From Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), msa.Maryland.gov

Easton, MD Walking Tour‘. From EastonMD.org

Eyeballing the Rumsfeld Maryland Residence‘ (photos) From Cryptome.org

Finseth, Ian. ‘Douglass and the Legacy of Mount MiseryBaltimore Sun, Aug 20, 2006

Fought, Leigh. ‘Obituary for Thomas Auld in the Baltimore Sun, Feb. 12, 1880‘. Douglass’ Women: In Progress blog

New National Era. (Washington, D.C.), Sept 28 1871. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Oliver, Elizabeth. ‘Misery, Thy Name is Rumsfeld’s Vacation Home: Race, power, and history come to a head at Rumsfeld’s historic vacation home’. Oct 26th, 2006 for Utne.com

VanGorder, Megan. ‘Frederick Douglass Narrative Tour‘ for Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Online Course – Amazing Grace: How Writers Helped End Slavery.

A Walking Tour of Historic St Michaels‘. From StMichaelsMuseum.org

Wye House‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wye House owner, philanthropist and local historian dies at her home’. Jul 27, 2012, The Star Democrat

Frederick Douglass’s Birthplace, Maryland’s Eastern Shore Sites Part 1

Easton, MD on a bright spring morning in March

Easton, MD on a bright spring morning in March

Frederick Douglass Birthplace Map 3

Second day, Monday March 21st

I wake up early and make my way to Maryland’s east shore, looking forward to a beautiful day in the country. It’s windy and very cold, but clear and sunny. I head for downtown Easton: the route from there to my first destination is easiest to follow for a non-local like me. And I can use all the help I can get: this will be the first site I visit in any of my history travels where I will rely both on maps that predate the turn of the 20th century and natural landmarks to locate it.

Just a few blocks into downtown Easton, I turn left on highway 328, which is Goldsborough Street where it starts /ends at Washington Street (Highway 565) in Easton, running only east from here. After about 7 or 8 miles, I turn left onto Lewiston Road.

Looking back on Highway 328 from Lewiston Rd, Easton MD

Looking back on Highway 328 from Lewiston Rd, Easton MD

I decide it would be a good idea to check with local people before I start looking for the next landmark, a crossroads called Tapper’s Corner: generally, it’s best to confer with the experts when you want to do something right. The lady I ask at the business at the corner, Bullock Construction, says go 2 or 3 miles, but the lady who gave me directions from the porch of her home down the street says go further. She lives right here, so I go with her recommendation.

Sheep at a farm on Lewiston Rd en route to Tapper's Corner

Sheep at a farm on Lewiston Rd en route to Tapper’s Corner

It ends up about 5 (oh so pretty) miles to Tapper’s Corner Rd, also know as Highway 303, a road that t-bones off Lewiston to my left.

Tapper's Corner off Lewiston Rd, with the Aaron Anthony old Holme Hill Farm site at the right

Tapper’s Corner off Lewiston Rd, with the Aaron Anthony old Holme Hill Farm site at the right

At my right I see, facing forward toward Queen Anne’s County, a big white house with white roofed green barns. According to my sources, this is the site of Aaron Anthony’s old Holme Hill Farm.

Aaron Anthony's farm, later Ebenezer Jackson's, now horse farm, Easton MD

Aaron Anthony’s farm, later Ebenezer Jackson’s, now horse farm, Easton MD

To my right and a little behind me, in the big green field with the trees behind it lining the Tuckahoe creek, is where Douglass was born in 1818, in a little long-vanished cabin. It was called Aunt Bettie’s lot, located between the road, a little ravine called Kentucky, and the Anthony farm, behind which runs the little mill stream into the pond where little Frederick went fishing.

Ravine, Woods & Field at Frederick Douglass's birthplace between Tapper's Corner & the Tuckahoe

Ravine, woods, and field at Frederick Douglass’s birthplace between Tapper’s Corner and the Tuckahoe

I want to stand on the very spot where the cabin stood, as near as I can determine it to be. I turn around, go back and park along the road at the lone little pull-out spot available on that side. The rest of the road is has a drainage ditch running the full length on either side. The little pull-out area at the side of the road is a little clue that there’s something special here: it’s at the same field where the cabin was and the ravine is. I cross the big green field, a plowed-under grassy cornfield, toward the ravine. I follow where it veers to the left, towards the one green tree among the gray winter branches along the curving ravine. When Douglass returned in 1878 to find his birthplace, he looked for a big cedar tree that he remembered from his childhood ‘a little deeper in the woods, near the edge of the ravine’. I draw closer to the green and discover it’s actually three trees: two pines and another tree, tucked in among the pines and other trees, shorter than them with darker needles. I jump up and pull off a little chunk of greenery: yes, it’s cedar. I get a chill.

The ravine among the woods next to Frederick Douglass' birthplace

The woods along Kentucky Ravine next to Frederick Douglass’ birthplace

Perhaps it’s the very same cedar tree that led Douglass, or perhaps, it’s an offspring of that tree. It seems too much of a coincidence that there would be one lone but unrelated cedar tree right here by the ravine as he described. Either way, I feel very emotional, very moved. I tend to develop a sense of love and concern for the people whose lives I follow and am solicitous of their memory, and these mementos of their lives help bring their stories closer to me. I hope this account makes you feel the same, and will help you more easily make this same pilgrimage one day.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Note: A wonderful source for finding Frederick Douglass’ birthplace, complete with maps and her research process, is my youngest yet: the author, Amanda Barker, did this research project and report in the 1990’s for her 7th grade honors class. Wherever you are, thank you, Amanda!

Aaron Anthony’s Holme Hill Farm‘. ChoptankRiverHeritage.org

Barker, Amanda. ‘The Search for Frederick Douglass’ Birthplace‘. The Eastern Shore Guide 

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Bondage and my Freedom, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Frederick Douglass Heritage: The Official Website. Website of the University of Massachusetts History Club

Holland, Jesse. Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In …, Part 3. Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press: North Carolina 2007

Holmes Hill Farm‘. Sankofa’s Slavery Data Collection, at Rootsweb.ancestry.com (Sankofa is an avatar of Dr. David Anderson of Nazareth College in Rochester, this may be coincidental)

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Frederick Douglass Baltimore Sites

Home where Amy 's host family lives in Garrison, MD, in a post-Civil War freedman's settlement, photo March 2016 by Amy Cools

Home where my host family lives in Garrison, MD, in a post-Civil War freedman’s settlement

First day, Sunday, March 20th

So here I am on the East Coast, commencing my Frederick Douglass history of ideas travel adventure in earnest! I’m thrilled and know I’ll learn and see a lot since I have so many sites I plan to visit already and know I’ll discover more as I go along.

I wake up still undecided whether to begin my Douglass explorations on the East Shore of Maryland or in Baltimore proper. I was leaning toward the Shore to keep my account more chronologically aligned with Douglass’s life, but inclement weather, the Maryland Historical Society’s open hours, a lost document, and a bit of oversleeping decided for me: a delayed start made it best to keep today’s journeys closer to home away from home. So, Baltimore it is!

Fell's Point, Baltimore MD, photo March 2016 by Amy Cools

Fell’s Point, Baltimore, Maryland

Aliceanna and Durham Streets, Baltimore, Maryland March 2016, photo by Amy Cools

Aliceanna and Durham Streets, Baltimore, Maryland

In a very important way, it’s actually fitting to begin with Douglass’ life here in Baltimore, centered in the waterfront district of Fell’s Point, since this is where Frederick Douglass had one of the most formative experiences of his life.

It happened in a ‘spare, narrow house at the corner of an alley’, Happy Alley, off Alliceanna Street at S. Durham. This was Douglass’s first home with the Hugh Auld family, composed of shipbuilder Hugh, his wife Sophia, and their little son Tommy. Frederick Bailey, who adopted the last name Douglass after fleeing slavery, was a child of just seven or eight himself, was imported from the plantation to be Tommy’s companion and body servant.

There used to be a sign marking this street corner as a Frederick Douglass historical site, but it’s disappeared (you can see the two silvery clamps still strapped under the street name signs). Perhaps people in the neighborhood were tired of being bothered by tourists asking where the exact house is. I have no shame, so I bother a young man with my inquiries. He doesn’t happen to know about that historical tidbit but is interested to hear the story; he happens to pass me by again a little while later, pulls over, and asks for the website so he can check in later and see what I find out, so I know he isn’t just being polite; he certainly is very kind.

Site of Frederick Douglass' home with the Aulds at Aliceanna and S. Durham, Fell's Point, Baltimore, MD, photo March 2016 by Amy Cools

Site of Frederick Douglass’ home with the Aulds at Aliceanna and S. Durham, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, MD

And another nice person, a woman entering her home in the very new-looking building on the southeast corner of Alliceanna and S. Durham does know, however, and confirms that building below, as far as she knows, stands on the very site of the old Auld house. She, for one, hopes the sign will go back up.

So back to that formative experience: Sophia Auld thought it would be a good idea to teach Frederick how to read since he was companion and body servant to the young son of the household and could thus aid in his education. But when Hugh came into the room and saw her teaching Frederick his letters, he stopped her, telling her in his hearing that ‘[he] should know nothing but how to obey his master …if you teach [him] how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave…’ As Douglass later recalled, this is the moment he realized the full inhumanity of the slave system, and knew exactly what he needed to do. No enforced ignorance for him!

Lancaster St, end where Gardiner's and Meacham's shipyards used to be, Fell's Point, Baltimore MD, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Lancaster St, end where Gardiner’s and Beacham’s shipyards used to be, Fell’s Point, Baltimore MD

Then I head down to the end of Lancaster St, about where Frederick worked at James Beacham’s shipyard in 1826, close to William Gardiner’s shipyard where he received more advanced training, upon returning to Baltimore in 1836 after three years back on the East Shore. He had another formative experience at Gardiner’s which I’ll tell you about shortly. Frederick worked on many shipyards and became a skilled caulker over time, earning him enough wages that Hugh was willing to let him keep some, unaware Frederick was saving up to start a new life as a free man one day.

Boats docked at end of Lancaster and Thames Streets, Fell's Point, Photo 2016 Amy Cools

Boats docked at end of Lancaster and Thames Streets, Fell’s Point

I head west on Thames St. At number 12 or 13, Frederick purchased the first book he ever owned at Nathaniel Knight’s shop at 28 Thames St, The Columbian Orator. The buildings are numbered very differently now, and at the time I write this post, I’ve yet to find an early atlas with street addresses. Fell’s Point is clearly a moneyed area, and large sections of Thames St has been built over with luxury condos, especially on the waterfront side. The other side of the street retains more of its older buildings, and all is very well kept and very charming.

A view of Thames St, Fell's Point, Baltimore MD, photo 2016 Amy Cools

A view of Thames St, Fell’s Point, Baltimore MD

I continue on to the very end of Thames St, heading west to the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum.

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum Fell's Pt, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum, Fell’s Point

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum Sign, Fell's Pt, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Museum Sign, Fell’s Point

The sculpture I find here of his head, though striking, looks a little odd just sitting on the ground as it is; I find myself instinctively looking around for the body it fell off of. Perhaps they’ll give it a new setting at some point.

Frederick Douglass sculpture at Maritime Park Fell's Pt, photo 1, 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass sculpture at Maritime Park Fell’s Point

Frederick Douglass sculpture at Maritime Park Fell's Pt, photo 2, 2016 by Amy Cools

Frederick Douglass sculpture at Maritime Park, with sign

Then I head right, around to Philpot St, where Frederick also lived with the Auld family (they moved around the Fell’s Point neighborhood a few times). The Maritime Park Museum actually faces onto it at least as much as it does onto Thames. Here, little Frederick obtained the help of his playmates to build on the fragmentary education he had received from Sophia and really learn to read. Some neighborhood boys helped him out, and though he never named them in his narrative for fear they’ll be criticized for this, he thanked them anonymously.

S Caroline and Block St corner by Philpot St, Fell's Point, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Corner of S. Caroline and Block St by Philpot St, Fell’s Point

The little loop of a street which remains that’s still called Philpot St on Google Maps, though there are no identifying street signs, is at the west end of Thames behind Block and S. Caroline. It curves around to where the Maritime Museum and Park overlook the harbor, and you can see Domino Sugars factory in the background across the water. The area where the Auld house was, and perhaps where Frederick played and read with his friends at Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard, is now flattened, with all signs that there ever was a street here, let alone a neighborhood, obliterated and under new construction.

Then I backtrack a little on Thames towards Bond St. If you look closely, you can see this view of Bond St is at Shakespeare St; Frederick grew to love William Shakespeare.

Bond St at Shakespeare, Fell's Point, Baltimore MD, photo 20156 by Amy Cools

Bond St at Shakespeare St, Fell’s Point

The occasion which took Frederick to Bond St, and which takes me here next too, was a sad one. Since he had become a skilled caulker at Gardiner’s shipyard, his work was very much in demand, especially as an enslaved black man who commanded lower wages than skilled white workers. Baltimore’s shipyards employed many skilled black workers on its busy waterfront, paying them all lower wages, and the white workers felt deeply resentful at this threat to their livelihood. So one day, when Frederick was perhaps sixteen, he was severely beaten by four of his coworkers. Auld was very angry, both because, as Frederick believed, he was genuinely concerned about his well-being and considered what they had done cruel and unjust, and, of course, he did not want his prized source of income to lose his ability to work. So he accompanied Frederick to magistrate William Watson’s office on Bond St. Again, as of this date, I can find no specific street address; when and if I do, I’ll let you know.

But to Auld’s chagrin, Watson refused to arrest the men or do anything about the crime at all: although the evidence a crime had been committed was presented in Frederick’s own battered face, only a white man’s testimony was legally admissible. The indignity and injustice of this were yet more striking evidence for Frederick that slavery was a great evil, strengthening his conviction that he must find a way to gain his freedom.

Then back up Bond to Aliceanna again, to grab a snack and better wifi connectivity at Cafe Latte’da, a punk rock-y comfy little hole in the wall coffee shop. It’s right around the corner from Jimmy’s Restaurant and Fountain Service on S. Broadway, where I had begun with a delicious breakfast of tater tots topped with pulled pork and cole slaw. If you’re like me and love comfy, well-established eateries with down to earth food and atmosphere, I recommend these two.

Fell St at Thames and Ann, Fell's Point, Baltimore Md, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Fell St at Thames and Ann, Fell’s Point, Baltimore MD

Then back to Fell St at Thames and Ann, which I had overlooked on my first go-round, but it’s no problem since the waterfront part of Fell’s Point is pretty small and very walkable. Frederick lived on Fell’s St with Hugh Auld when he returned to his service in Baltimore in late 1836. Again, Douglass gave no address in his memoirs. Hugh thought he’d be less likely to try to escape if he had more interesting employment in an environment which better suited him, enjoying more independence through retaining part of his wages and eventually, living in a place of his own. At this point, Frederick had become an expert caulker and could command much better wages despite his race and status as a slave. When Frederick did live on his own for awhile, there was an episode where Frederick didn’t return from a weekend outing to the Fell St house in time, and Auld was enraged. He threatened to take away the independence he had granted Frederick up to this point and to make him move back home.

Thames St Park bordered also by Lancaster and Wolfe, Fell's Pt, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Thames St Park bordered also by Lancaster and Wolfe, Fell’s Point

Since I’m back near the east end of Thames, I go back towards the end of Wolfe Street since I had found another secondary resource, a Baltimore Sun article, on my coffee break. I’m looking again for the site of Gardiner’s shipyard where he was beaten by his co-workers.  According to the article, ‘William and George Gardiner’s shipyard [was] on the north-east corner of Lancaster and Wolfe Streets’. It’s not at the water’s edge now; the waterline at Fell’s Point has been changed quite a bit in many places over the years as it’s been filled in and built over. Beacham’s, as I described earlier, would have been nearby, around the corner to the north. There’s this little park called Thames St Park, bordered also by Wolfe and Lancaster; perhaps this is the site of one or part of both of those shipyards.

Douglass Place, 500 block of Dallas St, Fell's Point Baltimore MD, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Douglass Place, 500 block of Dallas St, Fell’s Point Baltimore MD

Douglass Place with engraved marker, Fell's Point Baltimore MD, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Douglass Place with engraved marker, Fell’s Point

Next, I head for a site associated with Douglass many years later in his life. I walk north on S. Durham St, passing Douglass’ first home site with the Aulds again, then left (west) on Aliceanna towards S. Dallas St. I find that the stretch of Dallas between me and the 500 block of Dallas near Fleet St where I’m headed is built over, so I go back up Bond to go around. I find what I’m looking for: a little row of brick houses, where an engraved cream stone in the larger of the red brick buildings confirms this is indeed ‘Douglass Place’. Douglass built these in the early 1890’s as quality, affordable rental housing for black residents.

Historical Plaque at Douglass Place, Fell's Pt Baltimore, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Historical Plaque at Douglass Place, Fell’s Pt

Billie Holliday house at 219 Durham St, Fell's Point, Baltimore MD, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Billie Holliday house at 219 Durham St, Fell’s Point

On my way out from Fell’s Point proper, I decide to swing by a site only very tangentially linked to Douglass. The lady who confirmed the location of the Aliceanna St house directed me to a home where Billie Holiday grew up at 219 Durham St. I love Billie Holiday, as I’m sure you do too, so I’m thrilled to make this discovery. Holiday, as you remember, sang ‘Strange Fruit’, a stark and haunting song about lynching that was very controversial when she recorded it in the late 1930’s but well loved, and her performance of this song is among the very best. Douglass became an activist in his later years against lynching…. more on that in a future post.

The Wharf formerly known as Smith's, Inner Harbor, Baltimore MD, 2016 by Amy Cools

The Wharf, formerly known as Smith’s Wharf, at the end of Gay St, Inner Harbor, Baltimore MD

Then I head towards the Inner Harbor, west towards downtown, to the wharf which used to be called Smith’s Wharf. It’s described in an old document as located at the south end of Gay St. ‘run[ning] north and south, from the east side of Gay St dock…’, now at Pratt, assuming that where the water meets the shore has not changed dramatically, though it’s not really a safe assumption. It’s just that I mostly have the current shoreline to follow, with atlases from young Frederick’s time so scarce.

Wharf at Gay and Pratt, formerly Smith's, Inner Harbor, Baltimore MD, photo 2016 Amy Cools

Wharf at Gay and Pratt, formerly Smith’s, Inner Harbor, Baltimore MD

This is where little Frederick first arrived in Baltimore, diverted from his likely destiny as a plantation slave to a better one working in the city, though this was no guarantee of better treatment. Though city slaves often enjoyed a better standard of living in the city, Douglass tells of slaves in neighboring homes in Fell’s Point who were treated very cruelly. But on that day in the mid-1820’s, as Frederick watched the city shore draw near, he was thrilled at the prospect of a new and easier life than that of his deprived, if somewhat carefree, childhood as a plantation orphan.

Maryland Historical Society, Celebrating the 15th Amendment, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Maryland Historical Society Museum, Celebrating the 15th Amendment Plaque in the Civil War Exhibit

Then to my last stop, the Maryland Historical Society downtown, to see what they have on Douglass. I don’t find much, as the library is closed, though the museum is open. I am excited, however, to find a plaque with a photo of an event I want to discover a location for but haven’t yet. In 1870, Douglass gave a speech before a crowd of about 10,000 people in Baltimore in celebration of the passage of the 15th Amendment, and as it turns out, the celebratory parade ends at, and the celebrations culminate, at the War of 1812 memorial tower called the Battle Monument at E. Fayette and N. Calvert; you can see its column to the right. As luck would have it, an unsuccessful search for another site (I’ll tell you about it in the next post) happens to take me to thus very same place; when going through and studying my photos afterward, I’m excited to make this discovery! Here’s the site today; as you can see, it looks very different, except for the Monument itself.

Battle Monument at E. Fayette and N. Calvert, Baltimore MD, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Battle Monument at E. Fayette and N. Calvert, Baltimore MD

So ends my first day of following the life of Frederick Douglass on the East Coast, and it’s been a thrilling one. Coming up next: a day on the East Shore of Maryland, his birthplace and towns where he spent much of his early life. Stay tuned!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Battle Monument‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Enclyclopedia. Encyclopedia.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Re-published 1993, Avenal, New York: Gramercy Books, Library of Freedom series.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Douglass Terrace – Dallas Street North of Fleet Street’. BaltimoreMD. com

Eastern District‘. Baltimore City Police History.com

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Historical Sign Marking Where Frederick Douglass Lived as a Slave in Fells Point at Durham & Aliceanna‘. (photo) What I Saw Riding My Bike Around Today blog

Kelly, Jacques. ‘2 Neighborhoods Show City’s Gems of Black History‘. Feb 19, 1993, The Baltimore Sun website

Lakin, James. The Baltimore Directory and Register, for 1814-15. Baltimore: J.C. O’Reilly.

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Papenfuse, Edward. ‘Recreating Lost Neighborhoods: The House on Ann Street, Fells Point, Baltimore City, Maryland‘. Reflections by a Maryland Archivist blog

Separate is Not Equal: Brown vs. Board of Education‘. The National Museum of American History website, by the Smithsonian

Shopes, Linda. ‘Fells Point: A Close-up Look At Baltimore’s Oldest Working-class Community’. Nov 24, 1991. The Baltimore Sun website

Troy, Davis. ‘The Story of the 15th Amendment in Maryland‘. Maryland.gov

O.P. Recommends: The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations

Buck v Bell Virginia Historical Marker Q 28, Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of VirginiaFresh Air’s Terry Gross interviews author Adam Cohen about his book Imbeciles, which tells the story of eugenics in the United States and how the Supreme Court upheld many laws which arose from that once influential pseudoscience. Among these laws were those which forced the sterilization and incarceration into ‘colonies’, of the ‘feebleminded’ and ‘unfit’. Cohen makes the story of Carrie Buck central to his discussion in this podcast and to the book. She was a young woman who suffered about as greatly as one could from these policies and was eventually betrayed even by the Supreme Court, supposed to be the last bastion against legislative and democratic excess.

It’s a shocking story, and as Cohen and Gross point out, it’s not discussed nearly often enough today. Not only did such laws and practices harm thousands of American citizens, they influenced the Nazis, who based many of their own policies and tactics on American eugenics programs.

Less directly but important nonetheless, the backlash against that old eugenicist-brand forced confinement of mentally ill, disabled, and so-called unfit helped garner support for the release of huge numbers of people from mental hospitals in the late 1900’s. Intentions may have been good in many circumstances, since overcrowding, understaffing, and ineffective modes of treatment were at times serious problems. However, deinstitutionalization did little to solve them; the problematic institutions were not replaced with sufficient or viable options for patients and their families to continue receiving the treatment and care they needed. To this day, thousands of mentally ill people are arrested every year, incarcerated, and treated, often against their will, in prisons and other correctional facilities instead of hospitals, and only after they’ve committed crimes, victimizing yet more innocent people. And these correctional facilities, like the mental hospitals they’ve ended up replacing, are often overcrowded and ill-equipped to deal with those who should be patients rather than inmates.

Why link this podcast discussion about the failures of eugenics to the modern movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill? Because it’s important to remember that since it’s not always clear what the full ramifications of an idea are, we need to look at them more carefully and critically, beyond the obvious, considering the long-term and indirect effects of its influence as well. In the example of eugenics, its failures were so egregious, its lack of regard for the humanity of those it declared ‘unfit’ so ugly, that it became too easy to undermine all sorts of other things, many of them good, simply by finding a way to link them together. In this case, as the same century that saw the rise of eugenics was drawing to a close, all institutionalization of mentally ill people, all requirements that certain people receive treatment, became painted with the same broad eugenicist brush. But here’s the thing with deinstitutionalization: it turns out that a similar lack of regard for the suffering humanity of the mentally ill had more to do with those policies than anything else. This seems clear when we observe that the public debate ended up being about funding more than anything else, and not nearly enough of the savings from shutting down institutions were redirected to help the people who continued to need it. The mentally ill were too often simply abandoned by the state to survive on their own or with the help of their un-equipped families, in a world unnavigable and inhospitable to them, and their plight remains largely unaddressed by legislatures.

This one example shows how lessons to be learned from Carrie Buck’s sad story and from the eugenicist movement, then, are much more far-reaching than just the obvious ‘look how it inspired the Nazis!’ The 20th century was too often characterized by an obsession with progress and economic growth at all cost; all things and persons not seen as contributors were dismissed as superfluous and a drain on the rest of society. Let’s make the 21st century one that values humanity for its own sake, and deem scientific progress, economic policies, and public institutions successful only if they serve and promote humanitarian values, not the other way around.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration

Frontline: The New Asylums May 2005 and The Released April 2009 (documentaries)

Lyons, Richard. ‘How Release of Mental Patients Began.’, New York Times, Oct. 30, 1984

‘The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations’, Fresh Air interview
Mar 7 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/07/469478098/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations

Ordinary Philosophy is Pleased to Introduce Eric Gerlach

Eric GerlachHello dear readers,

I’m so pleased to welcome Eric Gerlach as a regular contributor to Ordinary Philosophy!

Eric was my teacher some years ago when I returned to college to study philosophy. I attended his Introduction to Philosophy class, and it very much inspired and influenced me to this day. In the class, he emphasized and explained the connections between human thought in all times and places in a friendly, warm, and easygoing style, and ancient philosophy from all over the world seemed as relatable, timely, and relevant today as it ever was. He still teaches this excellent class, which I very much recommend if you’re ever enrolled at Berkeley City College. I’ve been continuing to enjoy his work at his blog for some years now.

I’m so thrilled that Eric accepted my invitation to lend his voice to Ordinary Philosophy, and I’m sure you’ll find his work as interesting and edifying as I always do. Please join me in extending Eric a warm welcome to O.P.!

~ Amy Cools, creator and editor of Ordinary Philosophy


Confucianism & Daoism: The Basics

The following is a lecture I composed for teaching Confucianism and Daoism to my sister’s 6th grade History class at Star of the Sea School in San Francisco.


Confucius and Laozi, the philosophers who founded Confucianism and Daoism, lived just before the Warring States Period of ancient China (476 – 221 BCE), a time of war, tragedy and interest in philosophy.  Unfortunately, people’s lives are full of problems, but fortunately problems make people think about their lives, question the answers of authorities and experts, and reason beyond their understandings.


Each of us, as individuals, should use both belief and doubt to become better, wiser people, but how should we go about doing this?  Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of ancient China, gave people opposing ways to gain wisdom.  Many in ancient and modern times used both to compliment and extend each other.

The Confucians say we should build ourselves up to be educated, compassionate and civilized, while the Daoists say we should clear ourselves out to become open-minded, patient and peaceful.  The Confucians say we should learn from others, reason for ourselves, and do what we know to be right.  The Daoists say we should seek less for ourselves and gain perspective beyond our own interests, reasons and actions.

Confucius, the Golden Rule & Learning from Everyone

Confucius Latin

When Catholic Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the 1600s, they were astounded to find that Confucius, the most influential and central Chinese philosopher, was incredibly similar to Jesus in his sayings and teachings.  First and foremost, like Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and other revered teachers, Confucius taught what has been called the Golden Rule: Do for others what you would want them to do for you, and do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  Confucius said that this was the single thing that should guide one’s life, and that compassion is the central thread running throughout his thinking.


Confucius’ student Zigong once told his teacher, “I do not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me.”  Confucius replied, “You have not come that far yet”, probably because none of us want others to simply tell us that they are amazing.  Another time, Confucius heard Zigong criticizing other people, and said, “Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him leisure I do not possess.”  Confucius is being sarcastic, as he often said that no one is perfect, but anyone can be excellent by continuously working to become better.


Not only can anyone be excellent, but we can each learn from anyone about how to be better ourselves.  Confucius taught that when we see great people, we should seek to be like them, but when we see horrible people, we should seek how we are like them by examining ourselves.  Confucius said, “Put me with any two people at random and they will always have something to teach me, as I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.  Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are.


Because no one is perfect and everyone can learn from anyone, there is no one who is above criticism, not even the prince of the state.  When asked by a duke if there is a single thing that could ruin a country, Confucius said that if the prince is never told when he is in error or contradicted, it could be the ruin of everyone.  About himself, Confucius said, “I am fortunate indeed… Whenever I make a mistake, there is always someone who notices it.”


Daoism, Perspective & Less is More


The legendary Daoist sages Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi taught that human perspectives are limited, and we should always keep this in mind.  Because we only have partial perspectives, we should keep in mind that others have their own perspectives which may not be the same as ours.  In one famous story, a turtle comes across a frog living in a well, and tells the frog about the sea, water that goes beyond the horizon with no walls in sight.  The frog refuses to believe the turtle, arguing that he has lived in water all his life and knows perfectly well that it comes in wells that are only so wide and have walls.  In Zhuangzi’s book, it says:


You can’t discuss the ocean with well frogs.  They’re limited by the space they live in.  You can’t discuss ice with summer insects.  They’re bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the greater way of things with cramped scholars.  They’re shackled by their doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, and so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the greater way of things.

japanese monkey painting

If someone sleeps in a damp place, their back aches and they ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a carp?  If someone lives in a tree, they are terrified and shake with fright, but is this true of a monkey?  Of these three creatures, which knows the proper place to live?  We eat the flesh of grass-fed and grain-fed animals, deer eat grass, centipedes find snakes tasty, and hawks and falcons love mice.  Of these four, who knows how food ought to taste?  Monkeys pair with monkeys, deer go out with deer, and fish play around with fish.  Men claim that Mao-Qiang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run.  Of these four, which knows the standard of beauty for the world?


Daoists also teach the idea of wu-wei, or non-action.  This does not mean that one should not act at all, but that often doing less is doing more.  Being patient and paying attention can save us from doing too much or having to do things over again.  In a Japanese story that illustrates this well, a local lord has three sons and must decide who should inherit his position.  He tests them by placing a pillow on the door to his room and calling them one at a time.  The eldest son enters and annihilates the pillow in a frenzy of skilled sword strikes.  The middle son draws his sword but sees the pillow in mid-air and catches it.  The youngest son sees the pillow on the door, tucks it under his arm and enters the room to the joy of his father.  The youngest son was paying attention, and so he did not even need to pull out his sword.


There are many passages In the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, the two central texts of Daoism, that similarly teach that wanting too much and trying too hard is the wrong way to be:

Sages do not boast, and are thus admired by everyone, do not want to shine, and thus will be enlightened, do not seek excellence, and are thus excellent, and because they do not argue, no one can argue with them.


Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.

Whoever knows how to lead well is not warlike.  Whoever knows how to fight well is not angry.  Whoever knows how to conquer enemies does not fight them.  Whoever knows how to use others well keeps themselves low.


Those who divide fail to divide.  Those who judge are bad at judging.  What does this mean, you ask?  The sage embraces things.  Ordinary people judge between things and parade their judgements in front of others.  So I say, those who judge fail to see.

When you’re betting for cheap prizes in an archery contest, you shoot with skill.  When you’re betting for fancy belt buckles, you worry about your aim, and when you’re betting for real gold, you’re a nervous wreck.  Your skill is the same in all three cases, but because one prize means more to you than another, you let outside considerations weigh on your mind.  They who look too hard on the outside get clumsy on the inside.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Sex, Gender, Surgery, and Freedom

Illustration of fermentation in the Rosarium philosophorum, Frankfurt, 1550, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsListen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I believe that people should be free to express their tastes, preferences, and personalities without legal limits if little or no harm is done to others by doing so. Not including mere hurt feelings, however: if it did, no one would be free to do much of anything.

Likewise, I believe we have positive moral obligations to respect each other and ourselves, and to do so, we should work to free ourselves from harmful biases and distastes based on cultural, racial, religious, and gender stereotypes and narrow standards of beauty.

But when a popular social practice seems to promote one of these principles while betraying the other, it can be difficult to decide whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad…. Read the original piece here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsHypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but clear original sources this old are hard to come by, especially from a city as turbulent and violence-torn as the Alexandria of her day. The day of her death is better known, sometime in March of 415 AD. Since the latter date is more precise, we’ll break with our tradition here and remember Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.

She’s a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher, who writes commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia is a Neoplatonist, a philosophy with mystical overtones which posits that everything derives its being from the One, an ultimately conscious yet nonmaterial, non-spacial entity which is the pure ideal of everything that is. She is a scholar and teacher in a field and in a world that’s male-dominated, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement.

So let us remember and honor Hypatia for her great contributions to human knowledge and to the history of women’s liberation, living proof that women are equals in intellect and courage.

And let us also remember her sad death as a cautionary tale against those who inflame popular sentiment to seize power for themselves. Hypatia meets her death at the hands of a Christian mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between civic and religious authority. The mob of extremists who drag Hypatia from her carriage, torture and kill her with roofing tiles, and defile her body are inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher, this mathematician and astronomer (then often equated with sorcerer), this woman who dared teach men, this friend of Cyril’s rival Orestes, civic leader of Alexandria. As Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin quotes: “Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out. Had there been no [earlier such episodes], there would doubtless have been no murder of Hypatia.”

From the current presidential primary race, in which a certain millionaire is whipping up populist support* with extremist racial and religious rhetoric, back to Hypatia’s time and beyond, power-hungry opportunists plead innocence from the very violence they inspire. Yet it appears hard to justify that plea when reason and the lessons of history plainly reveal the nearly inevitable results of fomenting sectarian strife. Extremism in the defense of liberty or anything else is a vice** because of the way it drives away reason and sympathy, and after all, nothing is as liberty-destroying as mob violence and death.

Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Read more about Hypatia:

Deakin, Michael.’Hypatia of Alexandria‘ from Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)

O’Connor, J J and E F Robertson. ‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland website.

‘O’Neill, Tim. ‘“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again‘. Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009

Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar‘. Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

* ‘What If Trump Wins?’ by Jeet Heer in New Republic, Nov 24, 2015

** in reference to the quote ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination acceptance speech 

Is it Ethical to Use Data from Nazi Medical Experiments? by Lynn Gillam

Birkenau (Nazi concentration camp where medical experiments were performed on prisoners) by Scotch Mist - Own work - creative commons license, via Wikimedia CommonsDuring World War II, Nazi doctors had unfettered access to human beings they could use in medical experiments in any way they chose. In one way, these experiments were just another form of mass torture and murder so our moral judgement of them is clear.

But they also pose an uncomfortable moral challenge: what if some of the medical experiments yielded scientifically sound data that could be put to good use? Would it be justifiable to use that knowledge?

Using data

It’s tempting to deflect the question by saying the data are useless – that the bad behaviour must have produced bad science, so we don’t even have to think about it. But there is no inevitable link between the two because science is not a moral endeavour. If scientific data is too poor to use, it’s because of poor study design and analysis, not because of the bad moral character of the scientist. And in fact, some of the data from Nazi experiments is scientifically sound enough to be useful.

The hypothermia experiments in which people were immersed in ice water until they became unconscious (and many died), for instance, established the rate of cooling of humans in cold water and provided information about when re-warming might be successful. Data from the Nazi experiments was cited in scientific papers from the 1950s to the 1980s, but with no indication of its nature.

The original source appears as a paper by Leo Alexander, published in Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee Files. This is an unusual type of publication to be mentioned in a scientific journal, and it’s unclear that it comes from the trial of Nazi doctors at Nurmemberg.

In the late 1980s, US researcher Robert Pozos argued the Nazi hypothermia data was critical to improving methods of reviving people rescued from freezing water after boat accidents, but the New England Journal of Medicine rejected his proposal to publish the data openly.

Use of data generated by the Nazis from the deadly phosgene gas experiments has also been considered, and rejected by the US Environmental Protection Agency, even though it could have helped save lives of those accidentally exposed.

A tricky conundrum

So should the results of Nazi experiments ever be taken up and used? A simple utilitarian response would look to the obvious consequences. If good can come to people now and in the future from using the data, then its use is surely justified. After all, no further harm can be done to those who died.

But a more sophisticated utilitarian would think about the indirect and subtle consequences. Perhaps family members of those who were experimented on would be distressed to know the data was being used. And their distress might outweigh the good that could be done. Or perhaps using the data would send the message that the experiments weren’t so bad after all, and even encourage morally blinkered doctors to do in their own unethical experiments.

Of course, these bad consequences could be avoided simply be making sure the data is used in secret, never entering the published academic literature. But recommending deception to solve a moral problem is clearly problematic in itself.

The trouble is that focusing on the consequences – whether good or bad – of using Nazi data, misses an important point: there’s a principle at stake here. Even if some good could come of using the data, it would just not be right to use it. It would somehow deny or downplay the evil of what was done in the experiments that generated them.

This is a common sentiment, but if it is to hold ethical weight we need to be able to spell it out and give it a solid foundation. A little reflection shows that, as a society, we don’t have an absolute objection to deriving some good out of something bad or wrong. Murder victims sometimes become organ donors, for instance, but there is no concern that is inappropriate.

Paying our debt

So how to decide when it’s all right to derive some good from a wrongdoing? I think the answer lies in considering what society owes ethically to the victims of a wrongdoing. The ongoing investigations into institutional child sexual abuse in a number of Western countries have brought this question sharply into focus.

The wrongs done to victims of abuse are over but that’s not the end of the matter. Victims are ethically owed many things: recognition that what was done to them was indeed wrong, a credible indication that the society takes this seriously, an effort to identify, apprehend and punish the perpetrators, and compensation for their ongoing suffering and disadvantage. But beyond this, we have an obligation not to forget, and not to whitewash.

Victims of Nazi medical experiments are owed these same things. If society’s obligations to them have broadly been met through the Nuremberg trials and the ongoing global abhorrence of the awful things done to people in World War II, then it might be ethically possible to use the data if it could lead to some good.

But this must only be done with absolute openness about the source of the data, and clear condemnation of the way it was obtained. Citation of the Nazi hypothermia data in the medical and scientific literature from the 1950s to the 1980s gives no hint at all about of what is being referred to, and so falls ethically short.

Click here to read more articles in The Conversation’s series On Human Experiments.The Conversation

Lynn Gillam, Academic Director/ Clinical Ethicist, Children’s Bioethics Centre at the Royal Children’s Hospital, and Associate Professor in Health Ethics at the Centre for Health and Society, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.