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Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), American author, abolitionist, and lecturer wrote three autobiographies during his life-time; A Narrative on the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). You can find a collection of his speeches at the end of our version of My Bondage and My Freedom. Douglass was the first slave to stand publicly and declare his fugitive status, became a prolific lecturer, and published many newspapers during his lifetime which he devoted to causes in the name of "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all, as set forth in the United States Declaration of Independence.

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."--from an Address at a Civil Rights meeting, 1883

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February of 1818 on the Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, Maryland. His father was an unnamed white man, his mother, Harriet Bailey (1792-c1825) a slave owned by Aaron Anthony. Soon after he was born Frederick was separated from his mother to live with other children not old enough to work yet. Harriet worked hard in a nearby plantation's fields by day, and a few times, at her peril, ventured into the night to visit her son. Thus began Fredericks' life as a slave. He suffered all the deprivations of his fellow slaves; constant hunger, sleeping on the ground, and barefoot, dressed only in a long shirt. He knew no familial affection, being estranged even from his three siblings. So, when he learned around the age of seven that he was to go to Hugh and Sophia Auld's home in Baltimore, Maryland, he was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing the fabled city.

"Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity."--Ch. 5, A Narrative

It was here, under the instruction of Mrs. Auld that young Frederick first learned the alphabet. However it did not last long, for when Mr. Auld discovered these lessons he strictly forbade it in words that left a profound impression on young Frederick; that while knowledge and learning of the world around him could bring him great unhappiness, it could also give him great power over his enslavers who preferred their chattel to remain ignorant and unthinking. "He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right;"--Ch. 10, ibid. Frederick earnestly set forth a plan to continue to learn to read and write on the sly, aided by the white children he met on the streets and among the shipyards and docks. A book that especially left an impression on him was Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator (1797) which contains a poignant conversation between a master and his slave, who successfully argues for his freedom. In the city Frederick witnessed a kinder, gentler slave owner, averse to the public, severe, and humiliating treatments of slaves he had so often witnessed on the plantations.

After Anthony's death in 1826 Frederick was inherited by his brother Thomas Auld, and in 1832 he left Baltimore to go live with him in nearby St. Michael's. Frederick was plummeted back into the harsh reality of a slave's life; the constant feeling of hunger and being controlled by the hand of an inhumane master. When he did not prove to suit Thomas's purpose he was sent "to be broken" by Edward Covey, working in his fields for a year, and for the first six months was beaten and whipped severely many times.

"Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!"--Ch. 10, ibid

Around the age of sixteen, while working for his next master, a Mr. Freeman, Frederick resolved to escape. He had been teaching some of his fellow slaves to read, and formed close friendships with many of them. With four others they planned their escape under the pretense of travelling up the Chesapeake Bay to go to Baltimore for the Easter holiday; but before they even attempted they were arrested and sent to jail. Hugh Auld had him released and arranged for Frederick to work in the shipyards. After being beaten mercilessly by a group of white carpenters and finding no avenue of redress, Hugh and Sophie took Frederick to stay with them again. Hugh arranged his employment with another ship-builder, and he became very adept at the art of calking ships. He earned good wages for his master and became re-acquainted with the feeling of self-esteem that would carry him through the next stage of his struggle for freedom.

While Hugh and Sophie Auld had bestowed some small merciful kindnesses on Frederick that many other slaves did not even know was a possibility in their wretched lives, Frederick grew increasingly discontented with his situation. He resolved to escape again, and out of respect to the many who would in future use the Underground Railroad and similar escape tactics, he provides no details as to his success in his Narrative. However, almost forty years later in his essay "My Escape from Slavery" (1881) he does explain how he obtained the forged free man's papers of a black sailor, a perfect ruse for travel. In September of 1838 Frederick arrived in the free state of New York after a tense twenty-four hour journey by train and boat, having finally slipped the bonds of his master;

"A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath and the "quick round of blood," I lived more in that one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe."

Frederick's initial elation soon turned to one of constant vigilance and distrust of his fellow man, black and white, for anybody in the busy city could betray his status and turn him in as a fugitive, which was a lucrative business. He met a Mr. David Ruggles, then secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee, who brought him to his boarding house, and under his wing, for he had aided many fugitive slaves on their way to freedom. Ruggles also arranged the marriage ceremony for Frederick and Anna Murray, a free black woman with whom Frederick would have five children. Under the advisement of Ruggles that New York was yet too unsafe for them to stay, the couple set sail for the bustling port town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. With the aid of a Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson the Douglass's were able to get settled and Frederick his first taste of being his own master. He had long dropped the two middle names his mother had given him, and changed his surname a few times, but it was by the suggestion of Johnson that he adopt "Douglass" inspired by Sir Walter Scott's poem "The Lady of the Lake".

Douglass was astonished by the mostly unsegregated and hospitable society of New Bedford; he learned of the State freedoms available to him and slowly adjusted to life as a free man, with no worry of bounty hunters capturing him in the night. Although there was still prejudice among some men which prevented him from plying his trade as calker, he found plenty of work as a labourer; his heart swelled when he put his money in his own pocket, instead of handing it off to a master. He worked hard and earnestly at a brass foundry, but continued his religious and philosophical inquiry into the plight of slaves. Fueling his quest for answers was Issac Knapp and William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator;

"The paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds--its scathing denunciations of slaveholders--its faithful exposures of slavery--and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution--sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!"--Ch. 11, A Narrative

"His paper took its place with me next to the bible."--Ch. 22, My Bondage, My Freedom. While Douglass had witnesses the corruption of pious men in the name of religion, here he found an honest man dedicated to the compassion and equal treatment of all.

"Prejudice against color was rebellion against God. Of all men beneath the sky, the slaves, because most neglected and despised, were nearest and dearest to his great heart. Those ministers who defended slavery from the bible, were of their "father the devil"; and those churches which fellowshiped slaveholders as Christians, were synagogues of Satan, and our nation was a nation of liars."--Ch. 22, ibid

Douglass was now faithfully attending the American Anti-Slavery Society's meetings in New Bedford. It was at one of their conventions in Nantucket in 1841 that he first heard the influential and eloquent speaker Garrison. It was also time for Douglass to enter his career as lecturer, for he was invited by abolitionist William C. Coffin to stand and give a talk about his own experiences; his nervousness did not seem to negatively affect his audience, for he was promptly approached and asked to formally become a public advocate for the society. His new role caused some controversy among other slaves in hiding, but also added to the urgency of their plight. He did not reveal names or get into the facts of his situation while the fear of being caught still lurked, he simply narrated his life, but over time it became rote and some accused him of being an imposter. So Douglass penned his Narrative, to great danger of being re-enslaved. That same year, and through the support of his good friends in the Society including Garrison, Douglass sailed from Boston to England to continue, in safe haven, to speak publicly.

Douglass's arrival created a sensation of controversy; there were prejudiced groups outraged by his walking among them and being treated equally, but moreso those who were drawn to this Southern American slave and his fight for freedom. For the next two years Douglass toured Great Britain and gained the esteem and affection of numerous public and literary figures. Prompted by the revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and Douglass's imminent return to America, it was by the efforts of his many new-found friends that his freedom was purchased for one-hundred fifty pounds sterling--on 5 December 1846, Douglass was legally freed from enslavement by the delivery of his manumission papers from Baltimore County court. Also through his friend's generosity Douglass started his newspaper the North Star to be "devoted to the cause of liberty and progress"--Ch. 25, My Bondage, My Freedom. He would also publish Frederick Douglass's Paper, Douglass's Monthly, and the New National Era.

Settling in Rochester, New York, Douglass was kept busy with the publication of his newspapers, penning his second autobiography, and continuing to travel and lecture. While now legally a free man, he continued to be subject to systemic racism in all aspects of life--from the 'Jim Crow' cars in trains to everyday comments and attitudes, even from his esteemed white colleagues that perpetuated the 'evil' black man stereotype. While he continued to be a controversial figure, Douglass stood before many national institutions to deliver his speeches including "The Church and Prejudice" (1841), "The Nature of Slavery", "The Inhumanity of Slavery" (1850), "The Internal Slave Trade", (1852), "The Anti-Slavery Movement" (1855), and "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (5 July, 1852), "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Douglass became a Station Master for the Underground Railroad in Rochester and assisted many fugitives on their way through the State. During the Civil War he joined the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black unit to be formed for the Union. He assisted in recruitment and met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the poor conditions for the men and advocate changes to their discriminatory treatment. It was the start of many further associations with political and public institutions and causes that Douglass devoted so much of his time to including the Equal Rights Party; he was named president of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company in 1874; appointed US Marshall for the District of Columbia in 1877; and served as Consul General to Haiti in 1888-91. Douglass was now living at his home Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. It was there that he penned his third and final autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

On 4 August 1882 Douglass's wife Anna died. Two years later he married his white secretary; editor, feminist, and lecturer Helen Pitts (1838-1903). Further controversy surrounded Douglass but the pair were well-suited intellectually, for while Anna had never expressed much interest in matters political, Helen was an avid proponent of the women's rights movement. On 20 February 1895 Frederick Douglass died suddenly at Cedar Hill; he now rests in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York beside Helen. She worked hard after his death to establish a Memorial and Historical Association in his honour; their home is now a National Historic Site.

"I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise." Ch. 5--A Narrative.

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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