By Joe Heim
Wes Moore’s left hand will rest on history Wednesday when he takes the oath of office and becomes Maryland’s first Black governor and only the third Black governor elected in the history of the United States.
Underneath his palm as he swears to “bear true allegiance to the State of Maryland, and support the Constitution and Laws thereof” will be a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass, a Marylander born into slavery who later escaped to freedom and became a leading voice of abolition and an enduring champion of equality and justice he never saw fully realized.
Moore, who describes himself as a student of Douglass, said including the Douglass Bible in the ceremony would deliver symbolic heft to the day but that he had no idea whether it would even be possible to arrange. The moment the Democratic governor-elect learned the National Park Service had approved his request was “breathtaking,” Moore said in an interview Friday.
“I’m not just an admirer, but someone who is a true connoisseur of his life, of his teachings, of his writings,” Moore said. “And I’ve wondered what he would think about this moment, particularly with his life, with his sacrifice, with his frustrations.”
Moore, a political newcomer who ran for governor on a pledge to “leave no one behind” and a platform of ending child poverty and broadening economic opportunity for all Marylanders, said he believes Douglass would be proud of the state for achieving a goal that seemed out of reach when Douglass was alive. But he also said the venerated anti-slavery activist, who called on America to live up to its promises of freedom and equality, would not take satisfaction that the work was complete.
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“I think he would caution that the swearing in and the inauguration is not the task,” Moore said. “It’s a powerful statement that the state made. But if you don’t do anything with this moment and you don’t do anything with the statement, then you’ve missed the point.”
The well-worn Bible, embossed with “Frederick Douglass” on the front, is part of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site museum collection, cared for by the National Park Service. For the swearing in ceremony, it will be in a specially designed protective container held by Moore’s wife, Dawn. Only the new governor’s hand will touch it.
The Bible was a gift to Douglass in 1889 from the congregation of Washington’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the District. It was presented to Douglass as he prepared to travel to Haiti, where he would serve as President Benjamin Harrison’s U.S. resident minister and consul general until July 1891, according to information provided by the Park Service.
“The history of Frederick Douglass’s Bible transcends his work in the United States, and it encompasses an additional window into understanding his international battle for equal rights,” said Aaron Treadwell, an assistant pastor at Metropolitan AME Church from 2013 to 2017 and now an assistant professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.
The Bible, Treadwell said, “ was thought to be a tool of protection in his international travels, but it also was a symbol to warrant his inclusion in the fight for uplift in Haiti.”
David W. Blight, a history professor at Yale and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” said he thinks Douglass “would be deeply honored” by Moore’s decision to take the oath of office on his Bible.
“Though Douglass’s actual personal faith changed over time, he never, ever stopped using the Bible,” Blight said. “Especially the Old Testament, especially for wisdom, for storytelling, and literally for quote after quote after quote.”
Blight noted that Douglass professed a deep love for Maryland, even though he had spent his youth enslaved there. After escaping slavery in 1838 and fleeing north to freedom, Douglass wouldn’t return to Maryland until after the passage of a new constitution in Maryland that banned slavery in 1864.
Once slavery was banned, Blight said, “Douglass announced, ‘I am going back to Baltimore, to the soil of my birth, to the free state of Maryland.’ And he did. He went back to Fells Point. And he spoke at the Bethel AME Church, which is one of the places he had worshiped as [an enslaved]teenager.”
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Moore, who was born in Takoma Park and now lives in Baltimore, finds a source of strength in Douglass’s deep ties to his home state.
“No matter where he went, not just around the country but around the world, he always was a proud Marylander,” Moore said. “And there is a beauty to that, to have such a love and such a fondness for a place and space that never, never during his lifetime really understood or cherished his value.”
Douglass’s Bible isn’t the only one Moore is bringing to Wednesday’s ceremony. He also will have his grandfather’s Bible, which his children will hold during the swearing-in ceremony. If Douglass’s Bible represents Maryland and the nation’s journey from slavery to freedom to leadership, Moore’s grandfather’s Bible is for him a more personal but no less important reminder of the Black American experience.
James Thomas, Moore’s grandfather on his mother’s side, was born in South Carolina to parents who had come to America from Jamaica. But the family returned to Jamaica after his great-grandfather, a minister, was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, Moore said.
Though scared away from America, Moore said, his grandfather wanted to return because it was the land of his birth and he felt he belonged here. As a teenager, James Thomas did come back to the United States and attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
He later moved to New York, where he eventually became the first Black minister in the Reformed Church in America, Moore said. After Moore’s father died when Moore was a young boy, his mother moved the family to New York to live with her parents, and that’s where Moore forged a deep bond with his grandfather and his grandfather’s faith.
“I love his Bible because it is literally a workbook,” Moore said. “It has tape that holds it together. There is writing all over it. Literally questions that he’s asking. And I love it because it always gives me a sense of how he thinks.”
Thomas died in late 2005 while Moore was serving in the Army in Afghanistan. The idea that his Bible will be part of the swearing-in ceremony would make his grandfather proud, Moore said, but, like Douglass, he would not have a sense that the job was done. Moore thinks that as the first Black clergy member of the Reformed Church, his grandfather could give him advice on being the first Black governor of Maryland. And he thinks he knows what that advice would be.
“While he was a first, he did not want that to be the thing that people remembered most, and I think I very much approach it the same way,” Moore said. “I’m cognizant of the fact that I am first in the state of Maryland and one of less than a handful in this country’s history. But I think that when it’s time for me to pass the baton on, I want that to be something mentioned as an afterthought. So that we talk about all the work that got done and, oh, by the way, he was the first Black governor in the history of Maryland.”