The History Cat Classroom
The Life of Frederick Douglass
You've probably never heard of a slave named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. But, we're betting that you have heard the story the of the famous abolitionist speaker who ran away from his master and changed the course of American history. Frederick Douglass was born the property of Captain Anthony (a small-time Maryland plantation owner) but Douglass didn’t realize that he was a slave until he was six.
Unlike most slaves, Douglass grew up with his grandparents in a cabin on the banks of Tuckahoe Creek in Talbot County Maryland. His grandfather was a free black man who worked as a sawyer (woodcutter). His grandmother was owned by Captain Anthony but given the task of raising her grandchildren until they became old enough to work.
Frederick barely knew his mother. She lived on a plantation 12 miles away. But, she would sneak away to visit him when she could (a total of five times in Frederick's young life). Douglass's father was none other than Captain Anthony-- or so rumor has it. In those days it was far too common for slave owners to secretly have slave children.
However, Frederick’s world came crashing down when he turned six. He later wrote about the day when his grandmother took him to the main house and left Frederick outside to play. This time she never came back for him. He spent that first night on the Anthony plantation crying himself to sleep.
This was Frederick's first introduction to the realities of the slave system. His second happened not long after when he was awakened one night to sounds of screaming that filled the night air. As he peered through a hole in the wall of his clay-floored shack, seven-year-old Frederick watched helplessly as his aunt (only 15 years old) hung by her arms from the rafters of the storage shed while her master mercilessly whipped her. Frederick would never forget the vile curses and screams. He would later write about that night “…It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was a blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery through which I was about to pass.”
Frederick, like all slaves, lived in two worlds. Secretly, he hated slavery and the more he experienced it the more he yearned for his own freedom. In front of white folks, he played the part of the happy, obedient servant; he played this part so well that Captain Anthony let him do special tasks like going into town on errands or being loaned out to other plantations as a playmate to the white children. This is where he got his first big break. He was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld. In Baltimore, Frederick saw free blacks working side by side with whites (but for lower pay). Life with the Auld’s was almost like being a part of a family. Frederick was given shoes, a straw mattress, and was allowed to eat at the same table with his master and mistress. Back on the plantation, slaves were given their meal of corn mush in a trough like a rooting pig.
Escape from Slavery
However, his biggest break came when his mistress taught him to read. The doors of emancipation had been thrown open. When Sophia told her husband how quickly young Frederick was learning, the kind master transformed into the cruel oppressor. Angrily, he ordered his wife to stop. Teaching a slave to read was not only illegal in the South, it was seen as dangerous to the whole system. Hugh told her “…learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will unfix him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master and to obey it... .” Never again did Sophia Auld offer to teach Frederick to read, but the spark had been lit and Frederick took every chance he could to learn letters from white children or sneak bits of newspapers that had been thrown away. Frederick understood the path to freedom was in learning and with great risk of being whipped or “sold down south” he taught himself the secrets of books.
It probably comes as no surprise to say that Douglass escapes to freedom. He boarded a train with a sailor’s pass he borrowed from a friend (no photo ID in those days). But without manumission papers to say that he was a free man, he rode in constant fear of being caught. He talked about his escape from Baltimore to Wilmington, DE and then on to Philadelphia as one of the most nerve-wracking experiences he ever faced. But the City of Brotherly Love was still too close for comfort, so he made his way to New York City and then New Bedford, Massachusetts where he changed his last name to Douglass.
It wasn’t long after that he met up with one of the most famous abolitionists of the 1830's - a fierce foe of slavery by the name of William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison owned a well-known abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator, where he attacked the evil institution and pulled no punches doing it. Garrison also was the founder of New England Abolitionist Society that held some pretty radical views. When other abolitionists were saying end slavery gradually and send all emancipated blacks back to Africa, Garrison said end slavery immediately and give them the full rights of American citizenship. For many white Americans, this pill was a little hard to swallow. Especially since most northerners didn’t really think slavery was all that bad. After all, slave owners were talking about how the Negro were like simple children who needed to be cared for. Slavery gave them jobs and kept them out of trouble. If you don’t believe slaves were happy, they said, just take a look at the singing and dancing that took place among the slave quarters. Without slavery, blacks would run wild and get into trouble. This was how racists justified the evil institution.
The Man Becomes a Legend
Douglass was invited to speak at abolitionist meetings to set the record straight. He may have been nervous to speak in front of a crowd of whites at first (he said that his knees trembled) but quickly stepped into the role of a great orator. At over six feet tall and well-spoken, crowds began to take notice of this former slave. Some of the words they used to describe his speeches were “eloquent” and “manly”. Douglass won over the crowds of whites, especially those who were on the fence about the whole slavery issue. Douglass showed them his scarred back and told stories of sleeping on cold clay floors, spending winters without shoes, and being given clothing that was barely adequate to cover his body; he talked about the beatings and the violence, the hunger, and the humiliation. Douglass converted many whites to abolitionism because this was not some white person talking theory, this was a man who had lived it.
Douglass was a pretty popular speaker and could pack in the crowds but people began to question whether what he said was real. After all, he never gave specific details about who is former master was or where he came from. Douglass had a good reason for keeping it hush hush. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1791 said that northerners were supposed to arrest runaways like Douglass and return them to their masters. Cities like New York and Boston were teeming with slave catchers. The biggest prize of all would be someone like Douglass who was busy making the whole slave system look bad. Things really got hot for him after he published a tell-all book about his life as a slave called the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass where he named his former masters and exposed both the cruelty and kindness' that he witnessed. But kind or cruel, slavery denied a human being their freedom, and that was the truest form of injustice.
Frederick Douglass knew he had to get out of the country - and fast. At the age of 25, he reluctantly left his wife and four children behind in Massachusetts while he set off for a speaking tour in Great Britain that would change his life. Discrimination was nothing new to Douglass. In the north, free blacks were sometimes beaten by racist mobs, denied higher paying jobs, and were forced to use segregated accommodations. On the trip over, Douglass, who was somewhat of a celebrity by now, was forced to sleep in the steerage compartment of the ship where the luggage and animals were stowed. However, above deck, he dined with the captain and was the talk of the ship among the wealthy types who wanted to hear Douglass speak. In Great Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass was shocked that no one seemed to care when he ate at a fancy restaurant, stayed in nicer hotels, or even was seen in the company of a white woman. That sort of thing would have gotten Douglass some angry stares back in America but here in Britain; nobody gave it a second glance.
One thing that most folks don’t know is that Douglass was more than just an abolitionist. The 1830's and '40's were a time in America when reformers were taking on big issues like better treatment for the mentally ill and criminals, free public education, women’s rights, and temperance (banning alcohol). Many of Douglass’ speeches spoke up for these causes. In fact, Douglass saw no difference in the fight against slavery and the fight for votes for women. “…I cannot allow myself to be insensible to the wrongs and sufferings of any part of the great family of man…I am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood.” Believe it or not, Douglass was at the forefront of the first feminist movement.
After two years of speaking tours Across the Pond, Douglass was homesick and ready to take the fight against slavery back to America. By this point, the abolitionists had succeeded in buying Douglass’ freedom for $711.66 (five years wages for the average Joe). You could say that his time in Great Britain had made him bolder and his speeches more fierce. Douglass was not just going for the end of slavery in America, but equal rights for whites and blacks. He started a newspaper aimed at free black audiences called the North Star- a nod to the star that slaves used to find their way north on the Underground Railroad. Up through the Civil War, Douglass threw himself into his work as writer and speaker. Meanwhile, the United States was tearing itself apart in the days before the Civil War. Douglass spoke of the war as "the time to deal the death blow to the monster of the nineteenth century..."
Throughout the Civil War, Douglass worked with President Lincoln on recruiting black soldiers to the Union Army as well as working on what should be done to help free blacks after the war was over. You could say that Douglass helped influence the 14th & 15th amendments which, at long last, gave citizenship and equality to millions of people who had been denied that right based on the color of their skin.
The Wye House in Easton, MD where Frederick Douglass was once a slave.
"I prayed for twenty years but received no answer
until I prayed with my legs."
Frederick Douglass's 4th of July Speech read by actor Danny Glover
Irish American Weekly Newspaper
Obituaryof Frederick Douglass