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Pauline Nevins: Fancy meeting you here

Pauline Nevins
Other Voices

I know I’m not the only one who’s stunned when they see someone familiar out of their usual habitat.

My first memory of this was at age 13, seeing my cooking teacher in R. Rowlatt and Sons, Ironmongery and Hardware Merchants, a shop in my hometown on Silver Street. I stood and stared. She was shopping, like any ordinary person. I’d never seen her outside of the classroom where she directed us girls to wash our hands and scrub our nails before we touched a rolling pin.

She knew who I was — mostly because I was one of only four dark-skinned kids in the whole school. But also because I was the girl whose attempt at bread making she held up as an example of how not to. Instead of rising to a soft mound like those of all the other girls, my dough was as hard as a rock chiseled from Hadrian’s Wall. I had killed the yeast. To this day I am immediately intimidated by any recipe that has yeast as an ingredient.

My most recent imitation of a deer in the headlights was on a nippy summer morning in Waterford, Ireland during a recent European vacation. My husband, Jim, and I were on our way to the famous Waterford Crystal showroom.

A short distance from our destination I casually glanced up at a sign on the outside of City Hall. Had the plaque not been bright blue with white lettering, I might have missed it. I stopped abruptly and read these words: “FREDERICK DOUGLASS AMERICAN ABOLITIONIST SOCIAL REFORMER AND STATESMAN SPOKE IN CITY HALL 9TH OCT-1845.”

Oh my goodness. What was Frederick Douglass, a black slave from America, doing in Ireland in 1845?

I knew a little about Frederick Douglass — that he was born a slave and became a famous orator. But I was ashamed I didn’t know more. I remedied that when I returned to the United States.

I purchased a copy of Douglass, his three autobiographies compiled into one volume. I also searched the internet for information about the plaque. I read in the Irish Times that a Timothy J. Madigan, director of Irish Studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY was in attendance in Waterford when the plaque was unveiled in 2013.

I shot off an email to Professor Madigan. I thought I was a bit cheeky contacting him and was delighted when he responded the very next day. He began his email with, “Hi Pauline — great to hear from you!” He went on to say my timing was perfect. He’d recently given a talk about Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Ireland, and the various memorials to him, which included the commemorative plaque Jim and I saw in Waterford. I was surprised to read that Rochester and Waterford have been sister cities since 1983, and celebrated their 30-year anniversary with the unveiling of the Douglass plaque.

From the various resource links provided by Professor Madigan, I learned that the escaped slave lived for 25 years in Rochester, and it’s where Frederick Douglass is buried. The publication in Rochester of one of his autobiographies put him in danger of being captured and returned to slavery. Abolitionists’ friends convinced him to travel to Great Britain for his own protection. He stayed there for almost two years giving several hundred lectures — one was in the Waterford City Hall.

Several articles highlighted Douglass’ time in Ireland, and the profound effect it had on him. Often quoted is this excerpt from a letter Douglass wrote to his friend and mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, the famous white abolitionist:

“I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and Lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab — I am seated beside white people — I reach the hotel — I enter the same door … I dine at the same table — and no one is offended. No delicate nose grows deformed in my presence … I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.”

British benefactors purchased Douglass’ freedom from his Maryland master ensuring he could never be enslaved when he returned to the United States. The price: One hundred and fifty pounds sterling.

In Waterford, my husband and I continued our walk to the crystal factory. There, displayed among commemorative pieces, was an exquisite crystal bowl. It was a replica of a gift presented to the President of the United States by then Prime Minister, Enda Kenny TD, on behalf of the people of Ireland. The recipient was the son of a black man — President Barack Obama.

Pauline Nevins lives in Colfax. She’s the author of “Bonkers for Conkers,” a compilation of personal essays, and the memoir, “Fudge — The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby.”

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