Doug Fossett began with a question: Why does Frederick celebrate a slave owner?
The 54-year-old’s questioning began after watching “Up From the Meadows: A History of Black Americans in Frederick County, Maryland,” a documentary produced by Frederick’s History Shark Productions.
The documentary included details about Thomas Johnson, the first governor of Maryland and a Frederick businessman in the late 18th century.
“It just spoke to me that Frederick was a big slave city in Maryland, one of the biggest ones, and it was just how [Johnson] and his family treated slaves back then,” Fossett said. “And I’m just sitting there thinking to myself, this is a school that I went to with this guy’s name on it. And we still got, today, kids [who are] going there and it’s just unsettling.”
Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle and High schools have been in north Frederick for decades.
Fossett said he graduated from Frederick High School in 1983, but spent his middle school and first two years of high school at the Gov. Thomas Johnson schools. The only time he remembers people in the schools talking about the history of slavery was after “Roots” aired in 1977.
The TV miniseries did not bring up meaningful conversations, but instead incited racial slurs and black students being called “Kunta Kinte” and “Toby,” the names of the story’s main character, he said.
The current lack of acknowledgment of what the school name means was troubling to Fossett.
“It has never come up,” he said. “I’ve never seen it in the newspaper, the Board of Education [wanting] to talk about it, vote about it or bring it up for everyone in the area to look at and learn about.”
Fossett set out to learn more about the Johnson family. Local historians confirmed much of what he had heard. The Johnson family owned slaves, and slavery propelled him and his business to prominence. Johnson and his brothers owned the Catoctin Furnace, one of several forges that were part of their business. The work of creating munitions for the Revolutionary War was no doubt done by slaves, said Elizabeth Comer, a member of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.
“Good luck soft-pedaling that one, because there is no soft pedal,” she said. “How many [were there]? Does it really make any difference? One is too many.”
Johnson owned several dozen slaves, one of the largest slave populations in the county, Comer said. When his slaves ran for their freedom, his company took out advertisements in local newspapers offering bounties for the return of what they considered property.
Local leaders were reluctant to offer thoughts on the school name. The African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County declined to comment. Other people deflected comment back to AARCH or spoke for several minutes without giving a clear answer.
Walking Frederick’s streets yielded a similar result. Students and residents were hesitant.
And it is not as though Frederick has not waded into questions of race and local history before. In March 2017, busts of Johnson and U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, famous for delivering the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision that said slaves were not U.S. citizens, were removed from City Hall after public outrage. The Board of Education passed a rule in 2003 stopping any new school from being named after a person to avoid the kind of problems in the case of Johnson. At present, the board is forming a racial equity committee to examine the ways historic and contemporary racism are blocking students of color from equal opportunities in education.
The unwillingness to weigh in can no longer be pleaded away as a case of ignorance, especially white ignorance. Technology has democratized information, and voices re-examining history are growing. National conversations about removing monuments applauding the Confederacy dominate news cycles. And the re-examinations are happening in real time. In the past weeks, art museums around the world have removed the name of the philanthropic Sackler family after court documents asserted that the family willingly aided and profited from the opioid epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Instead, the hesitancy here, most pointedly among white residents, is moral timidness. There is no stomach to grapple with the reality of how racism and inequities are endemic in our country.
Facing such an issue would require a sober reckoning of how the modern influence and wealth of whites is the direct result of racism. White families accumulated land and influence from slavery. Families who did not own slaves still benefited for decades, and into today, from the substandard position in which U.S. laws placed black Americans. Facing this challenge would require change and, likely, sacrifice by those who have for decades been free from addressing such issues. The national conversation around reparations is growing, and politicians are calling for a full accounting of slavery’s influence in modern life.
Johnson’s space in the community remains as the state’s first governor and a wealthy local businessman. Today’s generation will learn his name as these line items in history or the name of their school. His slave-owning and racist past is an afterthought, to be delivered only in the form of an explanatory comma, if delivered at all.
The argument that Johnson was simply a man of his time is no more defensible than saying Benedict Arnold’s treason was characteristic of a man of his time under strong British influence, or saying that former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s war crimes were the result of his being a man of his time as regions of Europe plunged into fascism.
As any conversation around a re-examination of Johnson’s legacy and whether he is fit to be the name of local schools remains a conversation of silent nods and few words, the Albert Einstein quote rings true: Silence is complicity with the status quo.
What remains is an incomplete picture of Johnson’s livelihood in his time. His businesses and political career appear the accomplishments of ingenuity and hard work. Instead, his high standing in society was not the result of grit but by propping himself to prominence upon the backs of enslaved people.