Forever Free: The History of Frederick Douglass
Few historic figures were as integral to the Abolitionist movement as Frederick Douglass. Originally born into slavery, Douglass taught himself to read, write, and eloquently speak English. His passion for learning burned brighter than the bigotry and ignorance surrounding him. Douglass would later gain his freedom through his wit and will and help reshape America during one of its darkest periods.
Of course, this brief summary of Douglass’ life doesn’t do his incredible story justice; his journey from a victim of oppression to a visionary was rife with trials and tribulations. We’re delving into the history of Frederick Douglass to honor his legacy and commemorate Black History Month. Douglass’ memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, will serve as the basis for much of the information presented in this article.
Early Life as a Slave
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, to Harriet Bailey and an unknown father. While he did not know the exact date of his birth, Douglass estimated that it was in February of 1818 and celebrated it on February 14th.
Douglass grew up on Home Hill Farm and, like many young slaves at the time, was separated from his mother at a young age. He was given into the care of his maternal grandmother, Betsey Bailey, who raised him until he was five or six. Also, like most of his peers, Douglass grew up illiterate. Harriet was one of the few field hands who knew how to read, which helped inspire Douglass later in life.
In 1826, Douglass was sent to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld to take care of their son. Sophia taught Douglass the basics of English and how to read alongside her son, but Hugh quickly ended these lessons. Douglass did not allow this setback to stop him; instead, he secretly educated himself by tracing letters in old schoolbooks and learning words from poor White children. Douglass also purchased a Webster’s spelling book, a journal, and a copy of the Columbian Orator novel.
A turning point for Douglass came when he was leased to Edward Covey in 1833. Covey was a notorious “slave breaker” who berated and beat any slaves assigned to him to break them down. When he attacked Douglass one day with the same intent, Douglass defended himself, resulting in a two-hour-long fight. Douglass won the battle and instilled a sense of dread in Covey, who never touched him again. The battle also solidified Douglass’s desire for freedom and determination to escape.
Douglass attempted to escape slavery several times. In 1834, he organized an escape plan with other slaves on William Freeland’s farm. The plot was foiled, and authorities caught Douglass and sent him back to the Aulds, where his journey to freedom was just getting started.
A Fight for Freedom
During this period, the Aulds hired Douglass out to shipyards to learn a trade. Over the next few years, Douglass became a skilled ship caulker (a worker who waterproofs vessels). He also became much more involved in the Black community, meeting and mingling with many people, including Anna Murray, who he would later marry.
While he had a modicum of freedom, Douglass wanted to be free in its entirety. His opportunity came one day in September of 1838. After an altercation with Hugh Auld, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor, escaped from Baltimore by train, sailed to Philadelphia via steamboat, then traveled to New York by train, where he was married to Anna.
Douglass and Anna initially kept a low profile in New York. To avoid the many slave catchers in the city, Douglass changed his name from Frederick Bailey to Frederick Johnson. Even that wasn’t enough, and the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, Douglass attempted to find work as a ship caulker, but discriminatory laws and racist coworkers drastically reduced his employment prospects and forced him to work as a common laborer instead.
The then-Johnsons lived with another Black couple, Nathan Johnson and his wife, Mary “Polly” Johnson. This couple proposed the surname Douglass after Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady in the Lake poem, a suggestion that Douglass jumped on.
The now officially christened Frederick Douglass learned of the Abolitionist Movement via William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator. In 1841, Douglass visited a convention held by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and joined after delivering a rousing speech.
Douglass’ career as a writer and Abolitionist blossomed in the 1840s. He spoke at the National Convention of Colored Citizens in 1843 and published his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845. This was an important achievement, as it quieted arguments from opponents who did not believe that he had been slaveborn due to his eloquent speech.
Douglass wrote for and published several newspapers throughout his life, including Garrison’s The Liberator and his own newspapers, The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Later in life, he took over the New National Era, which was the final newspaper he published.
He attended the Woman’s Rights Convention in 1848, becoming a life-long supporter of suffrage. Douglass became a recruiter for the United States Colored Troops when the United States Civil War broke out in 1863. At the conclusion of the war, he lobbied for the 14th Amendment (citizenship to slaves) and the 15th Amendment (voting rights for Blacks).
Douglass was appointed as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia from 1877–1881 when President Harrison appointed him as the Recorder of Deeds. He later served as the Consul General and U.S. Minister to the Republic of Haiti.
A Lasting Legacy
Frederick Douglass passed away on February 20th, 1895, but his legacy thrives to this day. He remains an Equal Rights icon, a pivotal figure in Black history, and a testament to the idea that anyone can accomplish great things.
Douglass fathered five children with Anna Murray—Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, and Annie Douglass—who went on to have children of their own. Some of Frederick Douglass’ descendants are incredibly active in social movements today.