Article reprinted in its entirety from Stardem September 2021
EASTON — Architects unveiled the master plan for the Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe, presenting a grand vision of a towering visitor center, a memorial space, an overlook on the Tuckahoe Creek, meadowland, trails and kayak ramps — all spread across the entire 107-acre parkland.
LSG Landscape Architecture and Michael Marshall Design presented a draft of the master plan to the Talbot County Council on Sept. 14, pulling back the curtains on an initial layout of the park — which could cost $37.5 million to build — that will draw international attention and potentially become the county’s biggest tourism boom.
Cassandra Vanhooser, the director of economic development and tourism for the county, said the master plan realizes the dreams she first had for the project when she started it in 2018.
“When we hired this team, we said, ‘Here is a piece of property we would like to develop in honor of Frederick Douglass. It’s a blank canvas, there’s nothing there,’” she said. “From day one, we had a big dream for what could happen there, and I would say they met and exceeded my expectations. It’s a vision for what could be, and it gives us sort of a roadmap to getting there.”
Relatives of Douglass also applauded the master plan, noting it pays tribute to the famous abolitionist who was born on the parkland near the Tuckahoe Creek more than 200 years ago.
“It’s important for all of us to recognize and understand Frederick Douglass is one of our country’s greatest heroes,” said Kenneth Morris Jr, a descendant of Douglass. “To know he was born here on the Eastern Shore — and (have) the opportunity to recognize him with a beautiful visitor center and park — is the opportunity to bring tourism from all over the world.”
In the master plan, guests arriving at the park from Lewistown Road are greeted by a 20-acre field and meadowland, and make their way to a parking lot and a large visitor center — a 25,000 square foot, futuristic-looking facility overlooking the entire parkland.
The visitor center will act as a museum site. Inside the building, past the initial lobby, are offices for administrative and research departments, but also an auditorium, a study room and exhibit spaces featuring information about Douglass’ life. Atop the structure will be a viewing deck with a 360 degree view of the park.
Outside the visitor center is also a large amphitheater, while a memorial will be built across from the building. The memorial will host large marble slabs featuring quotes from Douglass along with his engraved image.
Michael Marshall, the lead designer, said the visitor center and memorial site are crucial to the overall park experience.
“This area shaped (Douglass’) thinking and his survival,” said Marshall. “We wanted some place really special to be expressed in the visitor center and the memorial aspect.”
Marshall also created enough of an open atmosphere for nature observance, much of which has stayed unchanged since Douglass’ time. Meadowland dots much of the park space, while the park will also host trails, a boardwalk near the Tuckahoe Creek, lookout points and launch points for small watercraft.
Each component is an integral part of the overall vision for the park. The inclusion of a large visitor center, along with nature, trail and water access, creates a hybrid design, which will offer a comprehensive experience — and one that will attract visitors from around the world, said Marshall.
“We’re trying to combine those into a hybrid experience of coming to this site, so they can come here and canoe or appreciate the environment as it is now and the wilderness of it,” he added.
The project could be scaled up or down, according to the designers. Preston Peper, the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said they wanted the designers to start big, and work from there.
“We told them to shoot for the stars,” he said, adding he was impressed. “As far as the visitor center itself goes, I think that’s more than anybody on this committee was envisioning.”
The Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe was first established in 2018, and is actually now open to the public. But a 14-member advisory committee, made up of county officials as well as relatives and scholars of Frederick Douglass, have been working to fully develop the parkland since its grand opening.
The committee held a hearing last October at the park, and opened up public comments for much of the time following that meeting (the committee is still encouraging public comment as the master plan is still a draft).
The release of the master plan is the culmination of a years-long efforts to create a blueprint for the parkland. Corey Pack, a county councilman who also sits on the committee, said the master plan presents a bold vision but one worthy of Douglass.
“Remember who you are honoring. We have to think big. If we have to go smaller then we will, but we want to make sure this center pays tribute to this man in a respectable way,” he said. “This will be an international destination. So when they come, they need to see something worthy of their time and respect.”
Pack plans to introduce a resolution that will form another committee, dubbed Friends of Frederick Douglass Park, that will continue to tweak the master plan, as well as fundraise.
The committee will look at state and federal grants, as well as some local dollars. Most of the money will come from corporate sponsorships and organizational partners who want to invest in a park that will one day attract international visitors. There are no interested partners as of yet.
The project will be built out in phases, with the memorial site, the Tuckahoe Creek overlook, and the pollinator meadows planned to be built out in the first phase, likely within two or three years. A second phase will include trails and small outdoor structures for the public to use, as well as more interpretive panels.
The visitor center is part of the final phase, and could take as long as a decade to construct. It’s estimated to cost $1,500 per square foot.
While Douglass is commemorated across the country, The Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe will be the first of its kind on this scale.
It will also connect to other historic sites commemorating Douglass, including smaller ones on the Eastern Shore and others in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where Douglass lived out the latter years of his life at Cedar Hill.
The park will tell a structured narrative about Douglass and his relation to the Tuckahoe and the surrounding community.
The narrative presented in the interpretive plan is still open for discussion according to county officials, but it will tell the story of Douglass through the natural setting of the park, as well as panels and exhibits with detailed information.
The big theme in the interpretive plan: “During Douglass’ formative years, the people, experiences, and unique landscape of the interconnected Tuckahoe community in Talbot County helped to shape his world views and and ignited his lifelong quest for justice.”
Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was raised by his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, who served on a large plantation called Holme Hill, owned by Edward Lloyd V in the Tuckahoe and Wye Mills region.
While his family was not free, around Tuckahoe there was a free community of African Americans that Douglass engaged with.
John Muller, a Douglass historian, said he wants the park to focus its storytelling not only on the natural environment and slavery aspect, but also the free community he was surrounded by, which included African American Methodists and Revolutionary War veterans.
“The focus on natural, archaeological resources are wonderful, but it doesn’t appear from the plan that there is a motivation and desire to tell a compelling story that would include the growth of methodism and how that impacted Bailey’s rearing in Tuckahoe region,” he said, “and the impact of the free black community in and around the Tuckahoe.”
Vanhooser said much is still up in the air regarding how the story will be told, and that the county “invites public input in every step of the process.”
For relatives of Douglass, whose lineage continues today, the park has a very personal impact. Tarance Bailey Sr., the five times great nephew of Douglass, recently spearheaded an effort to erect a mural commemorating Douglass’ life in Easton. The groundbreaking ceremony for the mural was held on Sept. 4.
With the mural and the Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe, Bailey said the connections of his ancestor’s roots on The Shore are finally being realized. He wants the park to remain in keeping with the master plan’s ambitious vision.
“This will be the biggest attraction (for Douglass) on the lower East Coast,” he said. “I think it should be something that Uncle Frederick would be proud of — he had grandiose tastes.”
Bailey wants Douglass’ story on the Tuckahoe to be told well and comprehensively, too. “You can put up a pretty building, but once you go in there it has to impress, it has to teach and it has to inspire,” he added.