✪ Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive anti-slavery writings. Accordingly, he was described by abolitionists in his time as a living counterexample to many slaveholders’ arguments at the time that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County, Maryland on a plantation between Hillsboro and Cordova. His birthplace was likely his grandmother’s cabin. In his first autobiography, Douglass stated: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” Though the exact date of his birth is unknown, he chose to celebrate February 14 as his birthday, remembering that his mother called him her “Little Valentine.” Douglass was of mixed race, which likely included Native American, African as well as European bloodlines.
At the age of 6, Douglass was separated from his grandparents and moved to the Wye House plantation. Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld, who sent him to serve Thomas’ brother Hugh Auld and his wife Sophia Auld in Baltimore. From the day he arrived, Sophia saw to it that Douglass was properly fed and clothed, and that he slept in a bed with sheets and a blanket. Douglass described her as a kind and tender-hearted woman, who treated him “as she supposed one human being ought to treat another.”
When Douglass was about 12, Sophia Auld began teaching him the alphabet. Hugh Auld disapproved of the tutoring, feeling that literacy would encourage slaves to desire freedom. Douglass later referred to this as the “first decidedly anti-slavery lecture” he had ever heard. “Very well, thought I,'” wrote Douglass, “Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave. I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.” As Douglass began to read newspapers, pamphlets, political materials, and books of every description, this new realm of thought led him to further question and condemn the institution of slavery.
From Slavery To Freedom
In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years his senior. Her free status strengthened his belief in the possibility of gaining his own freedom. Murray encouraged him and supported his efforts by aid and money. On September 3, 1838, Douglass successfully escaped by boarding a northbound train of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Young Douglass reached Havre de Grace, Maryland, in Harford County. Dressed in a sailor’s uniform provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs, he carried identification papers and protection papers that he had obtained from a free black seaman. He continued by steamboat along the Delaware River further northeast until he reached the “Quaker City” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold. His entire journey to freedom took less than 24 hours. Douglass later wrote of his arrival in New York City:
I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the “quick round of blood,” 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.
Douglass and Murray were married on September 15, 1838 by a black Presbyterian minister.
Abolitionist & Preacher
Douglass first thought of joining a white Methodist Church, but was disappointed, from the beginning, upon finding that it was segregated. Instead, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination first established in New York City. He became a licensed preacher in 1839.
While living in Lynn, Mass, Douglass engaged in early protest against segregated transportation. In September 1841, at Lynn Central Square station, Douglass and friend James N. Buffum were thrown off an Eastern Railroad train because Douglass refused to sit in the segregated railroad coach. At a lecture in Pendleton, Indiana, an angry mob chased and beat Douglass before a local Quaker family, the Hardys, rescued him.
Autobiography & Travels
Douglass’s best-known literary work is his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written during his time in Lynn, Massachusetts and published in 1845. Douglass published three autobiographies during his lifetime (and revised the third of these), each time expanding on the previous one.
On August 16, 1845, Douglass set sail on the Cambria for Liverpool, England, . He traveled in Ireland as the Great Famine was just beginning. Douglass spent two years in Ireland and Great Britain, lecturing in churches and chapels. The feeling of freedom from American racial discrimination amazed Douglass:
Eleven days and a half gone, and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlor—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended…. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.
The Abolitionist Movement
After returning to the U.S. in 1847, using £500 (equivalent to $48,612 in 2021) given to him by English supporters, Douglass started publishing his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York. The North Star’s motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” In 1848, Douglass was the only black person to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, in upstate New York. On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered an address in Corinthian Hall at a meeting organized by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. This speech eventually became known as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” One biographer called it “perhaps the greatest antislavery oration ever given.” Like many abolitionists, Douglass believed that education would be crucial for African Americans to improve their lives; and he was an early advocate for school desegregation.
On March 12, 1859, Douglass met with radical abolitionists John Brown, George DeBaptiste and others at William Webb’s house in Detroit to discuss emancipation. Douglass would meet Brown again when Brown visited his home two months before leading the famous raid on Harpers Ferry.
Douglass and the abolitionists argued that because the aim of the Civil War was to end slavery, African Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass publicized this view in his newspapers and several speeches. After Lincoln had finally allowed black soldiers to serve in the Union army, Douglass helped the recruitment efforts, publishing his famous broadside Men of Color to Arms! on March 21, 1863.
On April 14, 1876, Douglass delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. He spoke frankly about Lincoln, noting what he perceived as both positive and negative attributes of the late President. Calling Lincoln “the white man’s President,” Douglass criticized Lincoln’s tardiness in joining the cause of emancipation, noting that Lincoln initially opposed the expansion of slavery but did not support its elimination. The crowd, roused by his speech, gave Douglass a standing ovation. Lincoln’s widow Mary Lincoln supposedly gave Lincoln’s favorite walking-stick to Douglass in appreciation. That walking-stick still rests in his final residence, “Cedar Hill,” now preserved as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Douglass and Anna Murray had five children: Rosetta Douglass, Lewis Henry Douglass, Frederick Douglass Jr., Charles Remond Douglass, and Annie Douglass (died at the age of ten). Charles and Rosetta helped produce his newspapers.
Anna died in 1882 and in 1884, Douglass married again to Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and abolitionist from Honeoye, New York. The marriage of Douglass and Pitts provoked a storm of public controversy, since Pitts was both white and nearly 20 years younger.
In 1881, Douglass published the final edition of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he updated in 1892. Douglass also continued his speaking engagements and travel, both in the United States and abroad. With new wife Helen, Douglass traveled to England, Ireland, France, Italy, Egypt, and Greece from 1886 to 1887.
At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote. In 1892, Douglass constructed rental housing for blacks, now known as Douglass Place, in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. The complex still exists, and in 2003 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, he was brought to the platform and received a standing ovation. Shortly after he returned home, Douglass died of a massive heart attack. He was 77. His funeral was held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thousands of people passed by his coffin to pay their respects. United States Senators and Supreme Court judges attended as his pallbearers.
Douglass’s coffin was transported to Rochester, New York, where he had lived for 25 years. He was buried next to Anna in the Douglass family plot of Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester’s premier memorial park. A grave marker, erected by the University of Rochester and other friends, describes him as “escaped slave, abolitionist, suffragist, journalist, statesman and founder of the Civil Rights Movement in America.” ✪