Frederick Douglass was an American orator, writer, abolitionist, and former slave. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February of 1818. He was the son of Harriet Bailey, and rumored to be the son of, Aaron Anthony his slave master.
Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant as this was the custom; he lived with his grandmother until the age of seven when he was taken to the Wye House plantation owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd. In 1825, he was given to Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld, who sent Douglass to live with his brother, Hugh Auld in Baltimore.
The city was a turning point in Douglass’ life. At about the age of eleven, Sophia, Hugh Auld’s wife began to teach Douglass how to read, despite the fact that it was illegal to teach a slave to read. However, once Hugh Auld discovered Sophia’s activity, Hugh became enraged citing that if a slave learned to read he would become dissatisfied with his condition. Hugh’s rant were the first anti-slavery words that Douglass had ever heard.
Douglass continued to learn how to read from the local white children in his neighborhood and by reading the writing of the men for whom he worked. When Sophia caught Douglass reading the newspaper one day, she quickly ran over, snatched the paper from him, and said reading and slavery were incompatible with each other.
Instead, Douglass continued to teach himself to read in private. He began reading newspapers, political materials, and books which exposed him to new ideas. At twelve, Douglass discovered the newspaper The Columbian Orator, which he credited with defining and clarifying his views.
Douglass first attempted to escape after being hired out to William Freeland. While on Freeland’s plantation Douglass taught other slaves to read by using the New Testament as a textbook during weekly Sunday school. Word quickly spread, and a mob of angry whites burst in one day with clubs and stones to break up the gathering.
Dissatisfied with Douglass, Thomas Auld took him from Hugh and hired him out to a vicious poor farmer, Edward Covery, with a reputation as a slave breaker. Covey beat Douglass frequently, which nearly broke Douglass’ spirit, until one day he won a physical confrontation against Covey; Covey never beat Douglass again after that.
Douglass recounts in his first autobiography, Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, how he was able to escape. He met a free black woman named Anna Murray, and her freedom made Douglass believe in his own freedom. With Murray’s help, Douglass was able to escape. He dressed as a sailor using a uniform that Murray had given him, and carried identification papers which he obtained from a free black sailor. Murray had given Douglass money from her savings for Douglass’ travel expenses. He crossed the Susquehamma River by ferry at Havre de Grace, and then he continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he took a steamboat to Philadelphia and continued to the safe house of an abolitionist, David Riggles, in New York; his entire journey took less than 24 hours.
Once he was safely in New York, he wrote Anna Murray and asked her to join him in New York. Anna and Frederick Bailey (Douglass) married on September 15, 1838, 11 days after Douglass’s arrival in New York. They adopted the married name Johnson, but later changed it to Douglass.
Freedom and Abolition
Newly free, Douglass joined several organizations including a black church, and he attended abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal , The Liberator, and heard him speak in 1841 at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. At one of these abolitionist meetings, Douglass was unexpectedly asked to speak. He spoke about his story, and Garrison became very impressed with Douglass just as Douglass was impressed with Garrison.
Douglass gave his first official speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. He was 23 years old and the topic of his speech was life as a slave.
Douglass is best known for his first autobiography Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. It was reprinted 9 times within 3 years of publication and sold 11,000 copies in the United States. It was also translated into French and Dutch, and published in Europe. He published extended versions of his autobiography in My Bondage and My Freedom, published in 1855, and after the Civil War in 1881, he published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Britain and Ireland
Douglass traveled to Britain and Ireland for 2 years. He was amazed at how humanely he was treated there; he could enter and exit the same doors as white people and sit next to them at restaurants without angry jeers or stares. He traveled and gave speeches while abroad, often packing in crowds; he even befriended Irish nationalist Daniel O’ Connell. His British supporters were so taken with him they raised the funds for him to purchase his freedom from Thomas Auld. Ellen and Anna Richardson of Newcastle England purchased Douglass’ freedom for seven hundred dollars. Suddenly Douglass was legally free.
After returning to the US, Douglass produced abolitionist newspapers The North Star, Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass Paper, Douglass Monthly, and New National Era. Douglass was also involved in the woman’s suffrage movement. He was the only African-American to attend the first woman’s rights convention.
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was the most famous and well respected black man in America. He was also a guest of The White House. Douglass thought Blacks should be able to fight in the Civil War since the war was partly to free the slaves. He met with President Lincoln in 1863 to discuss the treatment of black soldiers. Later, he met with President Andrew Johnson to discuss black suffrage.
Douglass and President Lincoln and Equality for All
Douglass was keynote speaker at President Lincoln’s Emancipation Memorial. He noted that Lincoln did not initially support the emancipation of slavery, but that he did not support the expansion of it. His speech both critiqued and honored Lincoln by saying, “ Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery…” The speech was met with a standing ovation, and Mary Lincoln is rumored to have given Douglass Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.
Once the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were ratified and slavery was abolished, Douglass focused his attention on equality for all people. Douglass was appointed to several political positions after the Civil War such as the Reconstruction- era Freedman’s Savings Bank, and as a charge d’ affairs for the Dominican Republic. In 1881, he was made the Recorder of Deeds for Washington, DC. He was also appointed a US Marshall in 1877.
In 1872, Douglass moved from New York to Washington, DC after his house was burned down; arson was the suspected cause. Later in 1877, Douglass and his wife Anna, bought another home in Anacostia, MD which they named Cedar Hill.
Home and Remarriage
Douglass and Anna had 5 children during their marriage, and in 1882 Anna died which left Frederick in a depression, feeling his great loss. However, working with the activist Ida. B. Wells seemed to uplift his spirit.
In 1884, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist and daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr, an abolitionist, colleague and friend of Douglass. He was met with criticism from the public and his children, who thought his marriage to Helen dishonored their mother. Douglass responded to critics by saying that his first marriage had been to someone the color of his mother; his second marriage was to someone the color of his father. Nevertheless, the couple lived in Europe for a few years after their marriage.
Douglass attended a meeting on Febraury 20, 1895 at the National Council of Women in Washington, DC. He gave a speech which received a standing ovation. Shortly thereafter, Douglass had a massive heart attack or stroke in his Washington, DC home and died; Douglass was 67 years old. During his funeral, thousands of people passed his coffin to pay tribute.
Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand: Transcript of Douglass’ speech by the same name
What the Black Man Wants: Transcript of Douglass’ speech by the same name
Videos and Podcast: Videos and Podcasts about Frederick Douglass
The Douglass Home: A virtual Tour of the Douglass Home, Cedar Hill
Notes on A Narrative of Frederick Douglass: Provides notes of Douglass’ first autobiography
Quotes: Quotes by Frederick Douglass
Photo Gallery: Photos of Frederick Douglass and his home
Narrative of Frederick Douglass: A free copy of the book in the Kindle edition