Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

February 14, 2021 | Black History Month, G-BLOG

Frederick Douglass
An undated photo of Frederick Douglass
Photo Credit: AP Photo

Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, is remembered as an orator, newspaper publisher, and an escaped slave. 

He was born into slavery in February 1818 in Maryland. His mother lived on a different plantation, and he barely knew her as she died when he was a young child. He never knew the identity of his father. Some speculate that his father was a white man. 

At the age of eight, Douglass was sent to Baltimore as a body servant. As he was not allowed to go to school, he taught himself how to read and write. 

At the age of 15, Douglass was sent back to the plantation. He was rebellious as he was not going to work as a field hand. He educated his fellow slaves and plotted an escape but was unsuccessful. 

Douglass’s slave owner sent him back to Baltimore. There Douglass met a young free black woman, Anna Murray, who agreed to help him escape. She gave Douglass some money for a train ticket, and disguised as a sailor, Douglass headed for New York City where he declared himself free.  

Douglass and Murray married, and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts because Douglass was a fugitive and he was not safe from recapture in New York. The married couple adopted the last name of “Douglass”. They had five children, Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, and Annie.

Douglass found work as a labourer and began to attend abolitionist meetings where he spoke about his experiences with slavery. 

In 1841, he made a speech at a meeting in Nantucket, Mass., and he was encouraged to take a job as an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. For the next 15 years, Douglass attended abolitionist meetings across the northern and midwestern U.S. 

Some people questioned Douglass’s assertion that he was a former slave, and he wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845 to silence the voices. 

To escape slave hunters, Douglass travelled to Europe. He gave speeches and sold copies of his memoir while in England, Ireland, and Scotland from late August 1845 to early April 1847.  

Abolitionists purchased his freedom and Douglass returned to the U.S. legally free. He moved Anna and their children to Rochester, N.Y., a key stop on the Underground Railroad.

In Rochester Douglass bought a printing press and founded and edited The NorthStar, an antislavery newspaper. In its first edition on Dec. 3, 1847, Douglass wrote, “To millions, now in our boasted land of liberty, it is the STAR OF HOPE.” Douglass continued to work in the newspaper business until the 1870s. 

In 1855, Douglas published his second memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom, a continuation of his first autobiography. He also wrote about his struggle to end segregation on trains in New England.

Douglass believed that free Black people must also have the right to vote. In 1866, He joined women’s rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to find the American Equal Rights Association. The group’s goal was to, “secure Equal Rights to all Americans citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.”

During the U.S. Civil War, 1861–65, Douglass recruited Black men to fight with the Union army, including two of his sons. He met with President Abraham Lincoln to advocate for Black troops and to encourage the President to free the four million slaves. Douglass saw the war as the event needed to end slavery in the U.S.  

After the Civil War, Douglass and his family moved to Washington, D.C. Douglass continued to fight on behalf of Blacks because although they were free, they continued to suffer from unequal treatment and a lack of freedom. 

In his later years, Douglass held a number of public offices including U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia and minister to the Republic of Haiti. He resigned his position in Haiti when he discovered that American businessmen were taking advantage of his position in their dealings with the Haitian government.

In 1881, Douglass published his final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He reviewed his life’s work on civil rights, the progress made, and the work left to do. 

Douglass died at his home on Feb. 20, 1895. He was 77. 

Black History Month is celebrated in February due, in part, to Douglass’s decision to choose February 14 as the date of his birth. As with most slaves, his exact date of birth was unknown. Sources: library.arlingtonva.us, loc.gov, nps.gov, newyorker.com, notablebiographies.com

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