With the North no longer obliged to returnslaves to their owners in the South,Douglass fought for equality for his people. He made plans with Lincoln to move liberated slaves out of the South. During the war, Douglass also helped the Union cause by serving as a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a prominent activist, author and public speaker. He became a leader in the abolitionist movement, which sought to end the practice of slavery, before and during the Civil War. After that conflict and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, he continued to push for equality and human rights until his death in 1895.
Douglass’ 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, described his time as a slave in Maryland. It was one of five autobiographies he penned, along with dozens of noteworthy speeches, despite receiving minimal formal education.
An advocate for women’s rights, and specifically the right of women to vote, Douglass’ legacy as an author and leader lives on. His work served as an inspiration to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and his name even became part of 21st-century political discourse after he was referenced in a speech by President Donald Trump for Black History Month2017.
Who Was Frederick Douglass?
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in or around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass himself was never sure of his exact birth date.
His mother was of Native American ancestry and his father was of African and European descent. He was actually born Frederick Bailey (his mother’s name), and took the name Douglass only after he escaped. His full name at birth was “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.”
After he was separated from his mother as an infant, Douglass lived for a time with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. However, at the age of six, he was moved away from her to live and work on the Wye House plantation in Maryland.
From there, Douglass was “given” to Lucretia Auld, whose husband, Thomas, sent him to work with his brother Hugh in Baltimore. Douglass credits Hugh’s wife Sophia with first teaching him the alphabet.
From there, he taught himself to read and write. By the time he was hired out to work under William Freeland, he was teaching other slaves to read using the Bible.
As word spread of his efforts to educate fellow slaves, Thomas Auld took him back and transferred him to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of the slaves in his charge. Roughly 16 at this time, Douglass was regularly whipped by Covey.
Escape from Slavery
After several failed attempts at escape, Douglass finally left Covey’s farm in 1838, first boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there he traveled through Delaware, another slave state, before arriving in New York and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles.
Once settled in New York, he sent for Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore he met while in captivity with the Aulds. She joined him, and the two were married in September 1838. They would have five children together.
From Slave to Abolitionist Leader
After their marriage, the young couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they met Nathan and Mary Johnson, a married couple who were born “free persons of color.” It was the Johnsons who inspired the couple to take the surname Douglass, after the character in the Sir Walter Scott poem, “The Lady of the Lake.”
In New Bedford, Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement. During these meetings, he was exposed to the writings of abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison.
The two men eventually met when both were asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting, during which Douglass shared his story of slavery and escape. It was Garrison who encouraged Douglass to become a speaker and leader in the abolitionist movement.
By 1843, Douglass had become part of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Douglass was physically assaulted several times during the tour by those opposed to the abolitionist movement.
In one particularly brutal attack, in Pendleton, Indiana, Douglass’ hand was broken. The injuries never fully healed, and he never regained full use of his hand.
In 1858, radical abolitionist John Brown stayed with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, as he planned his raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, part of his attempt to establish a stronghold of free slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown was caught and hanged for masterminding the attack, offering the following prophetic words as his final statement: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.
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