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. His date of birth is unknown. Even his birth year is not known with certainty, but is assumed to have been 1818. Douglass eventually chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14.
His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a plantation slave. Douglass believed his father was the plantation owner. Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant and raised by his grandmother. At the age of six, he was separated from her and sent to a plantation. Despite the separation, his mother managed to maintain contact with young Frederick. She would often travel twelve miles at night to visit, returning home before sunrise without ever being detected. Remarkably, Harriet Bailey was also the only slave in the Talbot County area known to be able to read. She died when Douglass was only ten, but her influence on the future abolitionist must have left a strong imprint.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld. She, in turn, sent Douglass to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore. Initially, through the graciousness of Hugh Auld’s wife, Sophia, Douglass learned to read. After she was forbidden to teach Douglass, he learned through white children in the neighborhood.
Douglass was later hired out to another plantation. On Sundays, he began teaching more than forty slaves to read under the pretense of Sunday school. Surprisingly, the weekly activity continued for about six months before neighboring plantation owners caught wind of the proceedings and put an end to the perceived peril. They arrived armed at one such gathering to strike a fearful end to the potential danger of slave literacy.
Douglass was developing a reputation as a potential troublemaker and Lucretia Auld’s husband, Thomas, decided to rein him in. He took Douglass back and sent him to work for Edward Covey, a farmer with sadistic pride in his reputation as a “slave breaker.”
Douglass was whipped, beaten, practically starved, and psychologically tormented at the hands of Covey. After enduring the slave breaker’s gratuitous abuse for six months, the sixteen year-old Douglass had reached a breaking point. He resolved to stand up and defend himself. In what would become a major inflection point in his life, Douglass engaged in a two-hour physical brawl with Covey. The violent altercation ended in a mutually exhausting draw, but it was clear Douglass had gained a certain status over Covey’s vaulted reputation. Years later Douglass recalled, “He never again laid the weight of his finger on me in anger…It was the turning point in my life as a slave. It rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty.”
It was that sense of liberty that compelled Douglass to more seriously consider escaping. In his late teens, Douglass planned two escapes, but both were foiled. He then fell in love with a free black woman in Baltimore. Her name was Anna Murray and she would become his accomplice and later his bride.
In a crafty plan, Murray provided money and a sailor’s uniform. Another free black seaman courageously lent his own Seaman’s Protection Certificate, which by extension proved U.S. citizenship.
Douglass made his way by rail and boat from Baltimore, through Delaware, and finally to Philadelphia. Even though he was in the free state of Pennsylvania, he was still at risk of being tracked down and continued on to a safe house in New York City. The brazen but successful journey had taken less than 24 hours to complete. In New York, Douglass could scarcely contain his joy. “I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe.”
Murray then caught up to Douglass in New York and the couple married eleven days after the harrowing escape. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there Douglass met the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who provided speaking venues for Douglass and encouraged him 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 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 created a dilemma. Douglass was still the legal property of Hugh Auld and even though Douglass no longer resided in a slave state, the Fugitive Slave Act legally required citizens of free states to cooperate in returning runaways to their masters. Due to this risk, Douglass, like many escaped slaves, chose to flee to Ireland to avoid recapture. Once there, Douglass marveled at the irony of how his own nation’s democratic government failed to offer the same equality as the monarchial government of the nation that now played welcoming host to him.
In Ireland and Britain, Douglass gave many lectures and enjoyed immense popularity. In 1846, he met with Thomas Clarkson, one of the last surviving British abolitionists who had worked alongside William Wilberforce. On this trip, Douglass became the recipient of a magnanimous gesture of generosity. Supporters raised money to purchase the fugitive’s freedom from his American slave owner.
A grateful and invigorated Douglass returned to the United States, reunited with Murray, and renewed his campaign for abolition. With substantial funding from English supporters, he started the first of his abolitionist newspapers, the North Star.He also became an outspoken supporter of women’s rights, often using the paper to promote the cause.
Douglass was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, organized by suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. During this landmark women’s rights convention, the key issue of whether to adopt a resolution to ask for women’s suffrage came to the floor. Support for the measure hung in the balance with many attendees believing it would endanger public consideration of other, more achievable goals. Douglass rose and spoke convincingly in favor. His moving oratory helped pass the resolution by a large majority. Later, Douglass and Cady Stanton would have a falling out after Douglass supported the passage of the 15th Amendment, allowing black men the right to vote without guaranteeing women the same.
During the Civil War, Douglass campaigned to allow African Americans to fight for the Union and recruited soldiers to do so. He also continued his powerful writing and oratory against the grave inequality of slavery.
After the war, white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan mounted violent efforts to reassert white supremacy in the South. Laws were established in southern states, segregating African Americans. Additional measures, overt and covert, were undertaken to disenfranchise, criminalize, and intimidate them. In response to these disconcerting trends, Douglass launched a new newspaper, the New National Era. He used it to promote greater equality during the post-war tensions while supporting the presidential aspirations of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Civil War hero. As president, Grant would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to combat the rise of white supremacist movements in the Deep South. Grant used the act to make over 5,000 arrests, disrupting organized racial violence and gaining high praise from Douglass.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Douglass continued to support women’s rights and African American equal rights while also speaking and writing on behalf of a variety of reform causes including: land reform, free public education, the abolition of capital punishment, and peace.
In 1877, Douglass visited Thomas Auld. Douglass’ former, reviled slave master was near death and Auld’s daughter had reached out to Douglass. Accepting the invitation, Douglass met and reconciled with Auld.
In the same year, Douglass purchased a 20-room Victorian home on nine acres in Anacostia, overlooking Washington D.C. The following year, he bought an additional 15 acres around the property. He named the estate Cedar Hill and spent the last eighteen years of his life there.
Frederick Douglass, considered by many to be the most influential African American of the 19th century, died on February 20, 1895.
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