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Students Meet Former Slave, Abolitionist

<bt>When talking about the slavery days, re-enactor Fred Morsell became abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He brought to life days on the plantation, scarcity of clothing, a whipping, and his escape. But when Laura Kratzer, 6, asked why he was being judged by the color of his skin, Morsell was thrown for a loop.

Laura was on a field trip to the Frederick Douglass Museum and Hall of Fame for Caring Americans with Marsha Givens' first- and second-grade class from Orange Hunt Elementary in Springfield.

"That's a good question, Laura," Morsell said. "I'm not sure if I can answer that one."

The Friday, Feb. 13, field trip was part of the combination first- and second-grade class's study of slavery that coincided with Black History Month. The class is spending a couple of weeks studying famous African-Americans, said Givens. So far, they've covered Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

The class knew their Frederick Douglass facts too.

"He helped free slaves," said Kylie Keith, 8.

"He was an abolitionist," said Ross Brown, 8. "He's a person that doesn't believe in slaves."

Matlynn Mara, 8, remembered Douglass' newspaper days.

"He went around and gave speeches for The Liberator," Matlynn said.

DOUGLASS was born into slavery in 1818 near Easton, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. After being separated from his mother at an early age, Douglass was raised by his grandmother for six years until she took him to another plantation and abandoned him. At the age of 8, Douglass went to Baltimore to live as a houseboy to Hugh and Sophia Auld. That was the turning point, Morsell emphasized, because Douglass found out that being able to read would liberate him eventually.

As Morsell explained, Douglass heard Sophia Auld reading the Bible, and was teaching Douglass the alphabet when Mr. Auld walked in and became enraged at the thought of a slave learning to read.

"He told her, 'If you teach a slave to read, it will forever unfit him to be a slave,'" Morsell said.

On Sept. 3, 1838, Douglass took a train to Delaware and then a train to New York City, a free state, and the next day he was free.

"One thing that was very important to me was learning to read and write," said Morsell, portraying Douglass.

Douglass' house in New York was burned down, so he moved to the house on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

THE HOUSE is a few blocks from the Capitol in northeast Washington, D.C. It has been completely restored and provides a learning tool for schools all year, according to Richard D. Brennan Jr., director of the museum.

"We get requests a couple of times a week. Washington, D.C., is starting a historical walk, and this location is one of the stops," Brennan said.

When Douglass bought the house in 1873, it was actually two houses, and he combined them.

"In our renovation stages, we tried to bring the house back to it's original state," Brennan said.

Morsell has been a re-enactor since 1988, and through Fremarjo Enterprises Inc., he has spread the word of Frederick Douglass to over 600 schools, colleges, theaters, churches and community groups. He's done historic presentations at Harpers Ferry, Chautauqua, Gettysburg and the 1997 rededication of the suffragist statue in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Decked out in his three-piece suit, boots and a pocket watch dangling from the vest pocket, Morsell continued prodding the class to think about Douglass' efforts.

"Could we be in school if we were slaves?" he asked.

"No-o-o-o-o," the class said in unison, shaking their heads.

Joshua Smith, 7, asked, "Was it hard to get away from slavery?"

Douglass did try another escape attempt with a few others, but they all were caught. He spent a few days in jail, as well. Douglass learned a secret from that attempt and went by himself the next time.

"Silence is golden, for any slave that wanted to escape had to remember that," Morsell said.