The manner of Douglass's escape from Maryland was never publicly disclosed by him until the war had made slavery a memory and the slave-catcher a thing of the past. It was the theory of the anti-slavery workers of the time that the publication of the details of escapes or rescues from bondage seldom reached the ears of those who might have learned thereby to do likewise, but merely furnished the master class with information that would render other escapes more difficult and bring suspicion or punishment upon those who had assisted fugitives. That this was no idle fear there is abundant testimony in the annals of the period. But in later years, when there was no longer any danger of unpleasant consequences, and when it had become an honor rather than a disgrace to have assisted a distressed runaway, Douglass published in detail the story of his flight. It would not compare in dramatic interest with many other celebrated escapes from slavery or imprisonment. He simply masqueraded as a sailor, borrowed a sailors "protection," or certificate that he belonged to the navy, took the train to Baltimore in the evening, and rode in the negro car until he reached New York City. There were many anxious moments during this journey. The "protection" he carried described a man somewhat different from him, but the conductor did not examine it carefully. Fear clutched at the fugitive's heart whenever he neared a State border line. He saw several persons whom he knew; but, if they recognized him or suspected his purpose, they made no sign. A little boldness, a little address, and a great deal of good luck carried him safely to his journey's end.
Douglass arrived in New York on September 4, 1838, having attained only a few months before what would have been in a freeman his legal majority. But, though landed in a free State, he was by no means a free man. He was still a piece of property, and could be reclaimed by the law's aid if his whereabouts were discovered. While local sentiment at the North afforded a measure of protection to fugitives, and few were ever returned to bondage compared with the number that escaped, yet the fear of recapture was ever with them, darkening their lives and impeding their pursuit of happiness.
But even the partial freedom Douglass had achieved gave birth to a thousand delightful sensations. In his autobiography he describes this dawn of liberty thus:
"A new world had opened up to me. I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. My chains were broken, and the victory brought me unspeakable joy."
But one cannot live long on joy; and, while his chains were broken, he was not beyond the echo of their clanking. He met on the streets, within a few hours after his arrival in New York, a man of his own color, who informed him that New York was full of Southerners at that season of the year, and that slave-hunters and spies were numerous, that old residents of the city were not safe, and that any recent fugitive was in imminent danger. After this cheerful communication Douglass's informant left him, evidently fearing that Douglass himself might be a slave-hunting spy. There were negroes base enough to play this role. In a sailor whom he encountered he found a friend. This Good Samaritan took him home for the night, and accompanied him next day to a Mr. David Ruggles, a colored man, the secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee and an active antislavery worker. Mr. Ruggles kept him concealed for several days, during which time the woman Douglass loved, a free woman, came on from Baltimore; and they were married. He had no money in his pocket, and nothing to depend upon but his hands, which doubtless seemed to him quite a valuable possession, as he knew they had brought in an income of several hundred dollars a year to their former owner.
Douglass's new friends advised him to go to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where whaling fleets were fitted out, and where he might hope to find work at his trade of ship-calker. It was believed, too, that he would be safer there, as the anti-slavery sentiment was considered too strong to permit a fugitive slave's being returned to the South.
When Douglass, accompanied by his wife, arrived in New Bedford, a Mr. Nathan Johnson, a colored man to whom he had been recommended, received him kindly, gave him shelter and sympathy, and lent him a small sum of money to redeem his meagre baggage, which had been held by the stage-driver as security for an unpaid balance of the fare to New Bedford. In his autobiography Douglass commends Mr. Johnson for his "noble-hearted hospitality and manly character."
In New York Douglass had changed his name in order the better to hide his identity from any possible pursuer. Douglass's name was another tie that bound him to his race. He has been called "Douglass" by the writer because that was the name he took for himself, as he did his education and his freedom; and as "Douglass" he made himself famous. As a slave, he was legally entitled to but one name,--Frederick. From his grandfather, Isaac Bailey, a freeman, he had derived the surname Bailey. His mother, with unconscious sarcasm, had called the little slave boy Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. The bearer of this imposing string of appellations had, with a finer sense of fitness, cut it down to Frederick Bailey. In New York he had called himself Frederick Johnson; but, finding when he reached New Bedford that a considerable portion of the colored population of the city already rejoiced in this familiar designation, he fell in with the suggestion of his host, who had been reading Scott's _Lady of the Lake_, and traced an analogy between the runaway slave and the fugitive chieftain, that the new freeman should call himself Douglass, after the noble Scot of that name [Douglas]. The choice proved not inappropriate, for this modern Douglass fought as valiantly in his own cause and with his own weapons as ever any Douglass [Douglas] fought with flashing steel in border foray.
Here, then, in a New England town, Douglass began the life of a freeman, from which, relieved now of the incubus of slavery, he soon emerged into the career for which, in the providence of God, he seemed by his multiform experience to have been especially fitted. He did not find himself, even in Massachusetts, quite beyond the influence of slavery. While before the law of the State he was the equal of any other man, caste prejudice prevented him from finding work at his trade of calker; and he therefore sought employment as a laborer. This he found easily, and for three years worked at whatever his hands found to do. The hardest toil was easy to him, the heaviest burdens were light; for the money that he earned went into his own pocket. If it did not remain there long, he at least had the satisfaction of spending it and of enjoying what it purchased.
During these three years he was learning the lesson of liberty and unconsciously continuing his training for the work of an anti-slavery agitator. He became a subscriber to the _Liberator_, each number of which he devoured with eagerness. He heard William Lloyd Garrison lecture, and became one of his most devoted disciples. He attended every anti-slavery meeting in New Bedford, and now and then spoke on the subject of slavery in humble gatherings of his own people.