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Virginia native interprets Frederick Douglass' words

Frederick Douglass, circa 1879.

GEORGE K. WARREN/NATIONAL ARCHIVES GIFT COLLECTION

By DENISE M. WATSON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 23, 2017

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Frederick Douglass walked toward the front of Rising Sun Baptist Church in Mineral, Va., looking a little tired. He'd come a long way – a 2½-hour drive from his present home in Suffolk and 122 years from the grave.

About 50 people had filed into the church this August evening to hear what the great orator had to say.

The gray-haired Douglass shook off the fatigue and spotted a line of young children sitting in the back. He motioned them to the front pew.

"It is easier to build strong children," he said as the seven children walked up, "than to fix broken men."

One woman whispered to a friend that she'd heard Douglass speak at another event and that he had been wonderful. Another woman said she had plenty to do tonight but couldn't wait to see him.

As President Donald Trump said famously earlier this year: "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice."

Out of costume, Suffolk native Nathan Richardson rolls his eyes at the "Trump effect."

During a Black History Month speech in February, the president referred to Douglass in a way that left many people wondering whether Trump knew who he was – or that he had been dead since 1895.

Douglass trended on the internet. Late-night comics seized on Trump's words. Several "Frederick Douglasses" opened Twitter accounts, declaring themselves resurrected. One of the most popular announced his candidacy for the 2020 election, with former slave and long-dead heroine Harriet Tubman as his running mate. He still has thousands of followers.

Richardson, who has been portraying Douglass for the past three years, got so bombarded with emails and nonsense after the speech that he had to take a sabbatical from his social media accounts.

The Christians Serving Christ in Unity group in Louisa County asked Richardson to perform at the church on the muggy night of Sept 12. But the group – men from different churches who get together monthly to break bread and paint homes and change light bulbs for elderly folks – needed some guidance: Why do blacks and whites still segregate themselves, especially in church pews on Sunday? Even on that Tuesday evening listening to Douglass, blacks and whites tended to sit in segregated clusters.

Douglass, a former slave who bridged the rigidly divided worlds of blacks and whites in the 1800s, might be able to do the same now.

Over the years, Richardson has moved beyond simply going on stage and reciting a speech in a thoughtful baritone. He wants to project Douglass's legacy – one that he sees as so rich and little-known that it can offer hope to those who learn about it.

Douglass was born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818 and learned to read and write, a practice that was illegal for slaves. He was so determined to learn that he bribed white children with biscuits to teach him words. Masters tried to "break" his will and spirit with whippings that almost killed him, but they never did. When he was about 20, he escaped, and often referred to himself as a "thief" for stealing himself away from his owner. He married, had a family, founded his own newspaper and became a famous abolitionist and women's suffragist.

Who wouldn't want to breathe life into this man?

Typically, Richardson arrives before the crowd to slip into his persona and walk the grounds to absorb the spirit of a place. But he was running behind. He played the audiobook of "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" on his phone in his Mercury Sable as he covered the last few miles of Louisa County country roads.

This evening, Douglass told the group about his childhood. His mother lived 12 miles away on another farm, and she would sometimes walk the 24-mile round trip to shush him to bed at night. Douglass's father was rumored to be his master. Douglass was often sent to work for others, and it was the wife of a master who taught the youth to recognize letters. Her husband found out and forbade it. But the slave had learned enough to know he wanted more.

"My mind was freed and thus my body had to follow," Douglass said to the people in the sanctuary as others continued to trickle in. "Words became my food."

He pointed to one young teen in the first pew and asked him what he liked to read.

"Captain Underpants."

Douglass looked perplexed as the audience laughed.

"Captain Underpants?" he repeated.

Another young man said "Treasure Island" was his favorite.

Douglass said that if you want to learn interesting things, all you have to do is read a book. Someone must've opened a book and "brought him back," he said, explaining how he came to be among them this evening.

He enjoys his visits to the present and learning about things like "selfies," he said, but he still believes he has much to teach.

"Until the lion learns to read and write, history will always glorify the hunter," Douglass said, quoting an African proverb. He looked to the children: "What does that mean?" They shook their heads.

He explained that they, like him, have the ability to create their own destinies. He wasn't going to let anyone stop him from being free.

"When you succeed, you can tell your own story. You can write your own book," he said, leaning toward the children. "Do you think I would write myself as a coward?"

Richardson has been a poet for years and popular in local poetry circles. He discovered Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes at Forest Glen High School in Suffolk, and during the Army he wrote poems for fellow soldiers. They'd come to him with "Dear John" letters from their girls and needed Richardson to win the ladies back with his pretty words.

It often worked.

About four years ago, a fellow poet told Richardson that he should include a historic figure into his public speaking repertoire. Richardson, 57, started perusing the photos of famous men. He thought he had a slight resemblance to Douglass; Richardson had worn a beard since he got out of the Army in 2000, and now it was salt-and-peppery like Douglass's was in his later years.

His knowledge of Douglass was scant, though. He knew about his oratory and that he had lobbied President Lincoln to allow blacks to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Then Richardson read Douglass's speeches and his autobiographies.

"Wow, I thought, this guy is poetic," he said.

He appreciated that Douglass was a voice of reason but did not mind challenging the status quo. On July 5, 1852, Douglass was asked to speak to a crowd to commemorate Independence Day. Since slaves were not freed with the Declaration of Independence, he told the crowd bluntly: "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. ... Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?"

The speech was one of the first that Richardson, who often recites from memory and not notes, performed. He got a standing ovation.

Richardson started seeing parallels between his life and Douglass's. The mutual love of the written and spoken word. Their work in newspapers – Douglass was a publisher and writer, and Richardson is a marketing consultant for the Suffolk News-Herald. Both are self-made when it comes to their literary lives. Richardson tries to break through racial and cultural barriers with his work, as Douglass often did.

For years, Richardson had listened to Clay Jenkinson on the radio playing the role of Thomas Jefferson; that became a model for him. Richardson, like Jenkinson, now answers questions at events as he believed Douglass would have responded.

Richardson's first wig looked more like a stringy mop than a head of hair. He contacted a stylist, who built him a thick and wiry wig, strand by strand. His first requests were for Black History Month, but Richardson knew Douglass's timeline and started pitching himself as a perennial possibility.

"First of all, he is an American, and this is an American story," Richardson said. "Second, we're black all year round."

He's now being asked to speak at all times of the year and all along the East Coast. On Sept. 16, he appeared at an event in New Haven, Conn., a place the real Douglass visited. He performed alongside actor Danny Glover. Next year is Douglass's 200th birthday, and Richardson's schedule is already dotted with bookings. He's looking into investing in more authentic costumes as the demands come in; this could become a full-time job, he said.

"I realized everything I've done all my life was an evolution for this."

Douglass spoke for an hour about his escapes, about his marriages, about his five children. He explained why he got involved with not only abolitionism but women's rights. He spoke of unity, of the need to include everyone in a discussion and not create false boundaries like gender and race.

"The divisions can cause you to fail in your efforts to build a community."

Douglass apologized if he'd talked them into a slumber but said he'd be happy to answer questions before returning to the pages of history.

People asked if he'd had children with his second wife. (No.) How well did he know Harriet Tubman? They'd met on occasion, he said, and he had great respect for her.

As the questions ended, Douglass did something he tries to avoid. He broke character and addressed the group as Nathan Richardson.

He thanked them, saying that he hoped they would continue to teach him about being Frederick Douglass.

"The questions that I get, just your faces right now, gives me encouragement that there are people in this society who are trying to live Christian lives and have a compassion for people," he said.

"That's what Frederick Douglass was trying to do."
 

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