Frederick Douglass

Jun 7th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism
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Frederick Douglass1818 – 1895  Frederick Douglass was the most highly regarded African American speaker, publisher, and author of his time. His tireless efforts to abolish slavery and establish civil rights for Blacks were instrumental to the attainment of those goals in his lifetime. His intelligence and erudition set an example of what could be achieved personally, while his influence on the most dramatic issues of the 19th century showed the power of those achievements.

Learning to Read and Write

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1818 on the Maryland shore, Douglass was the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unknown white father. He was raised by his grandmother until the age of six, when he was brought to a neighboring plantation to begin the life of a slave. He was whipped, forced to eat from a common food trough, and clothed in only a single linen shirt, even at night with no blankets or bedding available. At age eight, he was sent to live with Hugh Auld, a relative of his master, in Baltimore. His duties there were modest, and despite legal prohibitions, Auld’s wife began teaching him to read and write.

After seven years of good conditions, he was returned to the country and a field-hand’s hard life. As retribution for such rebellious acts as organizing Sunday religious services for slaves, he was hired out in 1834 to a notorious “slave breaker,” Edward Covy. Pushed to his limits, Douglass eventually rose in defiance and prevented Covey from whipping him. One year later, Douglass was sent to another farm where he started an illegal school for Blacks and planned to escape. This plan was exposed and Douglass was jailed. Fortunately, Hugh Auld’s brother had him released and returned to Baltimore. There, Douglass was apprenticed as a caulker in the shipyards, and within a year rose to the highest level of apprenticeship. He met and became engaged to a free Black woman named Anna Murray in 1838, and joined a discussion group of free Blacks where he began to learn debating skills. In 1838, after suffering mounting indignities he could no longer tolerate, Douglass escaped. He journeyed to New York where Anna joined and married him. He changed his name to Douglass to elude recapture, and the couple moved on New Bedford, Massachusetts.

There, Douglass continued his self-education, attended meetings of abolitionist groups, and subscribed to a weekly journal, the Liberator, published by leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In 1841, Douglass spoke at the American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison recognized his talent and hired him as a lecturer, touring the northern and western states. He was an immediate success, praised for his eloquent and persuasive speeches. Beginning with accounts of his own experiences, Douglass eventually began speaking out on political and social issues, causing some listeners to question his background as an illiterate slave. To dispel doubts, and despite the risk of recapture, in 1845 Douglass wrote the first of three autobiographical volumes, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” It was an immediate best-seller with 5,000 copies published. Acknowledging the renewed risk to his freedom, Douglass sailed for England where he became an equally popular speaker.

He returned home with an international reputation in 1846, his freedom purchased by a gift of $710 from British friends. After continued tours with Garrison, Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York, and there began his own periodical, The North Star. This also signaled a break with Garrison on substantive matters, including Douglass’ growing certainty of the need for political and even violent action to end slavery. He also recognized the importance of equal rights for women, and was part of the first women’s rights convention in 1848. By 1849 Douglass and Anna’s house contained five children, and was a station on the Underground Railroad. They assisted hundreds of escaped slaves.

In 1859, the extreme abolitionist John Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Douglass was incorrectly implicated. Fearing southern “justice,” he fled to Canada, and then sailed for England and a long-planned second lecture tour. The death of his youngest child in 1860 brought him back home, and into the feverish politics of the pre-Civil War period. Douglass became a vocal advocate of Abraham Lincoln despite Lincoln’s weak positions on slavery. Douglass used the campaign to continue to press for full abolition, and the right of Blacks to serve in the army. He was instrumental in the success of both cases, with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and the formation of the all-Black Massachusetts 54th Regiment in 1863. Douglass attended Lincoln’s second inaugural address and reception, where he was greeted by the President as “…my friend, Douglass.” In 1865, the Civil War ended, and slavery was officially abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Douglass continued traveling and speaking, now focusing on Black suffrage, the Reconstruction of the South, and discriminatory practices. The Civil Rights Bill, which gave full citizenship to African Americans, became enshrined as the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 with Douglass’ help. His efforts were also important to the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, guaranteeing the right of all citizens to vote.

Douglass moved his family to Washington, D.C. in 1872 to be at the center of political activity. He became President of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, an institution designed to encourage Blacks to invest. He continued to travel and lecture and to write in support of civil rights. His influence helped the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. In 1877, he was given a political post as Marshal of Washington, D.C. In 1880, he was appointed Recorder of Deeds, and wrote “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” Anna Douglass died in 1882. Douglass then married Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years his junior. He served as the first U.S. Minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891.

Douglass died of a heart attack at the age of 77. He lay in state at a Washington church where large crowds gathered. Black public schools were closed for the day. Parents brought their children to see this famous figure, who had played an instrumental role in the emancipation of his people and their progress toward full civil rights.


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