The famous escaped slave and abolitionist is shown in the painting above in a stately pose. Sepia-toned likenesses of young Frederick, learning to read and later practicing his gift of great oratory, provide a backdrop.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818. The wife of one of his slave masters defied a ban on teaching slaves to read and taught young Douglass the alphabet. Douglass continued to learn from white children and by any means possible.
In his late teens, Douglass tried on two occasions to escape from slavery before he succeeded with the assistance of Anna Murray, a free black woman. The couple married and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Douglass met the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who provided audiences for Douglass to speak to and encouraged Douglass to write about his slavery experience. Douglass’ first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, eloquently laid bare the brutality he had endured as a slave. His incisive writing coupled with his rousing oratory single handedly refuted the slaveholder argument that African Americans lacked the intellect necessary to function as independent citizens.
The autobiography became a best seller, but the increased profile forced Douglass to flee to Ireland in avoidance of recapture. In Ireland and Britain supporters movingly raised money to purchase the charismatic fugitive’s freedom and Douglass returned to the United States to renew his campaign for abolition.
Douglass was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and was the only African American to attend the launching of the movement at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.
During the Civil War, Douglass campaigned to allow African Americans to fight for the Union and recruited soldiers to do so while continuing his powerful writing and oratory against the grave inequality of slavery. After the war, he was appointed to a number of governmental positions. Douglass is considered by many to be the most influential African-American leader of the Nineteenth Century.
The following poem is provided as audio to accompany the above video:
Born to Such a Fate
Why should you, such an innocent child be born to such a fate Stripped of everything, even a recorded birth date? Severed from your mother’s love before you could ask her Whether your father was her brutal slave master
Your birthrights be privation and starvation A life of hard labor, beatings, and devoid of education This, in a nation such as ours, one in liberty so steeply conceived How we not only depraved you but our own ideals so deceived
But you, you would be called to help lift a people and a nation whole To free the chattel from chains and direct the country from a guiltful soul For slavery could not forever hold you within its foul embrace Your narrative would provide a mirror for all of us to face
As a child something already stirred inside as you saw the need To rise above the oppression through teaching yourself to read But for the brutality of slavery you proved in kind Chance truly does favor the well-prepared mind
Your faith did not waiver your courage did not abate And finally your planned escape would find an open gate The freedom to speak, so long suppressed, would then Explode in brilliant oratory that moved the hearts of men
Your words would put us on a path to set your brothers free And help direct a union at odds with its own destiny Yes, this innocent child born to such a fate would be the inspiration Keeping us on the long road to perfecting this great nation