The town of Easton is the size of a large college campus, only a few miles across in parts, but big enough for two thematically opposite murals of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and statesman whom the town claims as its own.

The older and larger of the murals is the one you might expect. “Frederick Douglass on the Hill” is painted on the side of a building along a popular walking and biking trail. Douglass and his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, are depicted in the attire of their day, standing before the U.S. Capitol, with Frederick holding a tablet that reads, “The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” The artwork (whose benefactors include the town of Easton, the Maryland State Art Council, several public agencies, and local businesses) also depicts the travails and achievements of African Americans from slavery to modern day.

The newer, smaller and more subversive of the murals is not exactly a mural, but an enlarged print of a linocut image of Douglass done by a Utah artist named Adam Himoff.

The print opened a contentious debate that has yet to resolve and has illuminated the fissure lines that define our continuing discussion about race and culture. Himoff’s work renders Douglass in modern attire, posed in a crouch. It takes up most of the height of a two-story building owned by the woman who paid and arranged for the image to be displayed on South Washington Street, a popular thoroughfare in the town.

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Amy Haines owns the building and the one next to it, which houses her popular restaurant, Out of the Fire. She and her husband, Richard Marks, came upon Himoff’s linocut, called “Frederick Douglass Liberty,” through a local friend in the art world and were immediately captivated by it. They hung it up last November and almost immediately heard objections to the depiction.

In a letter to the community news site The Chestertown Spy, one of the descendants of Douglass spoke out on behalf of the family.

“Our family finds the mural disturbing and disrespectful to the legacy of our family,” Tarence Bailey wrote. “The representation of Frederick Douglass in a posture typically associated with gang activity or drug dealers is offensive.”

Grievances were publicly aired at a town meeting. Local and national media descended upon Easton to chronicle the discord. Haines, who is white, worked in biotech in San Francisco before settling in Easton. Himoff, who is also white, is from New York and worked there in the financial industry before turning his focus to art. He has mostly kept himself out of the fray, neither defending nor apologizing for his work. Haines and Marks, who are named as benefactors on the other mural, left the print hanging.

Haines recently gave a tour of the restaurant, a fixture in the town for decades, and explained her decision to continue to display the image. An active patron of the arts, she uses her restaurant as a gallery for local artists, who do not have to pay her any commission should a customer buy a piece. Her business “is deeply rooted” in the community, she said, and she wanted to use the print to honor Douglass, as well as spark discussion of his legacy and interest in his contributions to history. She has heard as many positive reactions to the work as negative, she said.

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She bought both buildings during the pandemic with plans to renovate and moved her restaurant across town. The California transplant was drawn to Easton because it was so “culturally rich for a small town.”

Douglass, perhaps the most famous African American of his century, is claimed by many places. But Talbot County is where he was born into slavery, making the Eastern Shore a place of particular importance when retelling any version of his story.

The mural “Frederick Douglass on the Hill” is painted on the side of a building along a popular walking and biking trail in Easton. (Hugo Kugiya/The Baltimore Banner)

Himoff declined an interview but did respond by email, writing, “I am much more interested, at this point, to let the artwork speak publicly now for itself.”

After the mural went up, he corresponded with an instructor at Chesapeake College in nearby Wye Mills about using his work as part of her introduction to art class. He suggested some questions the class could digest. Among them:

Can you understand both perspectives in the debate about whether the Liberty mural is uplifting or degrading of Frederick Douglass? Is Hip Hop culture worthy of Frederick Douglass? Would he approve or disapprove of Hip Hop culture? Does context and location matter for a piece of art? Is a piece of art perceived differently in a big city vs. a small town? Who would Frederick Douglass be today? What type of work would he be doing? What would his platform be and who would he be engaging?

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The instructor, Kim Ruark said she plans to use Himoff’s piece this semester when she talks to her students about how to identify and define art.

“I feel that if a work of art sparks meaningful, thoughtful conversation, then it is a most successful work indeed,” Ruark said. “Liberty most certainly has done this. I’m interested to hear what my students think regarding how Frederick Douglass is portrayed in the work from a historical perspective as well as one of storytelling.”

The description of “Liberty” on Himoff’s website calls it “a mix of old and new,” saying it “forces the viewer to pull Douglass forward in time, examine his lasting impact on our world, and wonder at the role and life he might have lived if he was alive today.”

Reynaldo Anderson, an associate professor of Africology and African American studies at Temple University, said if that was the intent, the work fell short.

“There is a legacy of white Americans appropriating or misappropriating African American culture,” Anderson said. “Would anyone do a mural like this of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello?”

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Anderson’s expertise is Afrofuturism, which he defines as seeing the future through a Black cultural lens.

“It’s how people of African descent locate themselves in time and space and act with agency,” he said. “Douglass was a statesman, an ambassador. He wasn’t a rapper, and he was not a thug.”

Douglass was much attuned to the events and injustices of his day, Anderson said, and a present-day Douglass might put his persuasive, intellectual powers to conflicts abroad, perhaps to Gaza.

“You can have art for art’s sake, but don’t try to say you’re trying to make a political statement,” Anderson said. “Yeah, it was legal, but was it right? Probably not. Douglass used his voice against the institution of slavery. He’s not doing that in this picture.”