When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley first moved into the historic Government House in Annapolis, Md., something struck him: There were no portraits of black Americans who had influenced the nation among those of historic greats like George Washington.
That was remedied Monday when the governor unveiled a portrait of Frederick Douglass—the first of an African American to hang on the walls of the governor’s residence.
“One of the powerful truths of our country, and especially of the state of Maryland, is that our diversity is our strength, and you will find very few states diverse in geography and as diverse in people as you will find here in … Maryland,” the governor told The Root in an interview preceding the event. “It struck me, when my family and I moved from Baltimore to Annapolis to the governor’s residence here, while very, very nice and very spacious and very big and very historic, the artwork on the wall and the portraits of people in that house did not reflect the diversity of our state very much.”
And so, with the help of his friend Eddie Brown—the founder, chairman and CEO of Brown Capital Management in Baltimore—and Brown’s wife, Sylvia, O’Malley moved forward with the Douglass project.
“Not only is Eddie’s investment firm [one of the oldest] African-American investment firms in the country, but they are also really generous people who have a deep appreciation for history and the arts and have given generously to places like the Maryland Institute College of Art,” O’Malley said. “They’ve stepped up here with what I believe will be a legacy for generations and generations to come, so that when schoolkids walk into the governor’s mansion for their tour, they will see that towering figure of Frederick Douglass along with George Washington, along with other figures in Maryland history.”
It was the Browns who commissioned the portrait by celebrated artist Simmie Knox, the first black American to be commissioned for a presidential portrait, who completed the portraits of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton in 2002.
“Frederick Douglass famously said, ‘I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.’ Commissioning this portrait of Douglass, a great American, under the leadership of Governor O'Malley for the Government House was simply the right thing to do, the right choice for me and my family,” Eddie Brown said at the event, according to a press release.
The portrait commissioned by the Browns isn’t Knox’s first of Douglass. That description goes to a 1976 portrait that is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s art collection and is currently being housed in the Center for African American History and Culture at Anacostia in Washington, D.C.
“I have painted Frederick Douglass before, but this portrait is special because of the historic representation it holds in the Maryland Archive collection and because of Governor O'Malley's admiration for Frederick Douglass. I am honored to have been chosen to paint it,” Knox added, according to a press release.
The decision to have Douglass’ portrait made comes from a place of deep admiration on the part of both Brown and O’Malley.
O’Malley recalled learning during his childhood about the self-made man who was formerly enslaved. “Fourth-graders here in Maryland all study Maryland history, and I became aware of this towering figure on trips on the weekend to the Eastern Shore, where my father and mother would take us sometimes,” the governor recalled. “When I was in St. Michaels, I can recall asking my father, ‘Did Frederick Douglass walk these streets? Was Frederick Douglass here? Where was Frederick Douglass born?’”
The admiration never ceased, even when O’Malley became the mayor of Baltimore. When he was elected, he chose to spotlight Douglass’ brutally honest and poignant autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in the city. “When I was mayor of Baltimore, when I was first elected mayor, we made [Douglass’ narrative] the book of the year, requesting that everyone read it, even handing it out at middle schools.
“I guess Frederick Douglass, and the spirit of Frederick Douglass, is the truer and deeper spirit, I believe, of our country and especially of our state … when he said that ‘We are one, our cause is one and we must help each other if we are to succeed,’” the governor added. “The theme of this O’Malley-[Lt. Gov. Anthony G.] Brown administration now for these last seven years has been ‘One Maryland’—that we are one Maryland, that we’re all in this together, that we need each other—and Frederick Douglass, I think, in his courageous life epitomized that; a fierce advocate.”
Does the governor, who is in his final year, given term limits, foresee any other great African Americans joining Douglass on the walls of the residence?
“I would hope that we’d find some way to honor Harriet Tubman before too long,” O’Malley said. “[She’s] another great Marylander, and I think the two of them together in a Government House will be a powerful pair.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.