Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams welcomes Nettie Washington Douglass in an Online Exclusive interview. Nettie is the great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass and the great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. "I think that classifies Nettie as American royalty," says Stephanie, "especially when you think of the accomplishments of her ancestors, who faced so many obstacles. Frederick Douglass had a remarkable history, considering that he was born into slavery and rose to be such an important person."
Nettie and Stephanie met because Stephanie read the first volume of the autobiography of Frederick Douglass years ago. She loved it so much that she put Douglass on her list of historical figures she would invite to dinner. Eventually, Stephanie mentioned the book to Mark Leslie of Martello Media in Dublin, Ireland. "I suggested to Mark that he read this book and bought it for him," she recalls. "It sat on my desk for a year until finally he was in New York and I mailed it to him overnight. Not only did he get the book, he read it from cover to cover on his way back from America."
Stephanie then received a note from Mark saying that Nettie and her son, Ken Morris, had visited Glasnevin Cemetery to lay a wreath on Daniel O'Connell's tomb. Mark had Nettie and Ken sign Stephanie's copy of the Frederick Douglass autobiography, as well as Anne Quindlen, great-granddaughter of Daniel O'Connell. Stephanie and Nettie agree that given the way the timing worked out, they must have been meant to know each other.
Even Nettie and Anne Quindlen met by chance. "Anne just happened to be listening to a radio show that I was doing," says Nettie. "She called the studio, they gave me the number, and Anne was able to come to a book signing and the wreath laying. She lives in Dublin – she doesn't even listen to that radio show normally. Then she also picked me up and took me to the harbor, which was where Frederick Douglass would have first landed when he came to Ireland in 1845. She even took me to meet two of her cousins. It was wonderful to share time with Daniel O'Connell's descendants; I just had the feeling that our ancestors were smiling down."
Frederick Douglass traveled in Ireland in 1845 after his autobiography became an unexpected success. Technically, he was still an escaped slave, so his friends suggested that he leave the country for a while. Nettie visited Ireland under happier circumstances. "We visited Ireland because of Don Mullan, who's an award-winning author and humanitarian," she explains. "He became very interested in the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Daniel O'Connell. He realized that Frederick Douglass had spent 4 months in Ireland and that Daniel O'Connell had become Douglass' mentor.
"But he didn't realize the iconic status that Frederick Douglass had in the U.S.," Nettie continues, "until he went on a trip to Memphis. When he got there, the majority of the group wanted to visit Elvis' home. He wanted to go to the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. The first portrait he saw in the motel was of Frederick Douglass, which made Don realize that he was really recognized in the U.S."
One thing led to another, and Don had the idea of publishing a commemorative edition of Frederick Douglass' autobiography and commissioning a statue of the activist. The new edition will include the narrative, speeches given by Frederick Douglass during his visit to Ireland, and a foreword by Mary McAleese, President of Ireland. The edition was launched on the occasion of the first African-American U.S. president – Barack Obama – visiting Ireland. The planned statue of Frederick Douglass will be the first one outside the U.S. to depict him.
Don and Nettie connected through her organization, the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. "Don sent me an email and said it was urgent, that he was launching a book and wanted me to be a part of it," she says. "He invited me to Ireland to take part in the book launch, and the rest is history. And my son Ken, who is president of the foundation, was able to go, too." All proceeds from the book will go towards Don's humanitarian organization, Concern Worldwide.
What was it like to visit Daniel O'Connell's grave, knowing that he shared a passion for freedom with Frederick Douglass? "I can always tell when something is really getting to me because I get chills," Nettie says. "After we laid the wreaths on his tomb and took pictures, we were allowed to go inside the tomb and have 10 minutes of private time. We just bowed our heads and thanked him for taking Frederick Douglass under his wing. Frederick Douglass was only in his 20s when he went to Ireland, while Daniel O'Connell was in his 70s. I really sensed that they were there.
"I know people will laugh, but you'll hear me say often that I talk to Frederick Douglass," she adds. "When we were flying over to Ireland, people were sleeping or watching a movie. I was looking out the window and telling him what was going to happen. Just think – he had no way of knowing that he would even have descendants, or that 166 years after his visit, they would be going back to Ireland to honor him. To me, that was awesome. And I had no idea what was going to happen. We had an itinerary, but so many things happened that were not part of it!
"At certain times, when I'm doing something on behalf of Frederick Douglass, I'll ask him to please let me know that he's present," Nettie continues. "Every single time that I make that request, I know he's there because a very strong wind comes up and I get chills. So as we were walking in Glasnevin, I told Don about this. All of a sudden, the wind came up, and Don said, 'There's the wind.' And then I got chills! So now I have a witness."
Nettie and Ken were also able to experience classic Irish hospitality in the form of a free taxi ride. "We were on our way to another function from the Guinness Storehouse, where we went to have our pints," she recalls. "Don actually had the books in hand, so he began to tell the taxi driver about the book. The driver was a young guy who actually knew who Frederick Douglass was. So Don told him that he would be very pleased to know that his passengers were actually descendants of Douglass. The driver gasped and told us that the ride was on him."
After visiting Ireland, Frederick Douglass wrote that it was the first time in his life where he felt like he was actually being treated as a person, not as a skin color. So Nettie kicked off the book launch by thanking the Irish people for their ancestors' kindness to her ancestor. "When I was younger, I had trouble understanding why people wanted to thank me all the time," she says. "When I became an adult, I talked with a woman who told me that she wanted to thank Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington for making her life better, but she couldn't. So thanking me was the next best thing. And that's why I thanked the Irish people."
It is Stephanie's sneaking suspicion that Irish sailors in the port of Baltimore actually encouraged – and later helped – Frederick Douglass to escape from slavery. "When you read the book, he never comes out and says it – you turn the page and he's in Massachusetts, not Maryland," she says. "But he talks a lot about the Irish seamen in Baltimore, where he was sent to work on the docks. The sailors told him he should escape and offered to help. But he didn't want to escape right away because he had a good shot at learning to read and write in Baltimore, even though he was still a slave."
Nettie also believes that Frederick Douglass was aware of Daniel O'Connell and his work prior to going to Ireland. During his trip, Douglass spent 4 months in Ireland, then traveled to Scotland and England. Later, the people of Ireland and England raised money to pay for Douglass' freedom. When he returned to the U.S. two years later, he was able to pay his way out of slavery. "So the people of the UK and Ireland were very dear to his heart, and of course to mine as well," says Nettie.
When it first came out, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass was the first slave narrative to have been written by a former slave himself. Other slaves had told their stories to someone else, who then wrote down the tales, but Douglass was the first to write his own story. "When he started speaking out against slavery, most people did not believe that he had been a slave because he was too learned," Nettie explains. "They thought he was fake and asked him to tone it down – obviously, he refused! But when he wrote the book, he had no way of knowing that it was going to be a bestseller."
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