Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born on the Eastern shore of Maryland, originally named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Separated as an infant from his slave mother Harriet Bailey (he never knew his white father), Frederick lived with his grandmother until, aged eight, his owner sent him to Baltimore to live as a house servant with the family of Hugh Auld, whose wife defied state law by teaching the boy to read. Auld, however, declared that learning would make him unfit for slavery, and Frederick was forced to continue his education surreptitiously with the aid of schoolboys in the street.

In 1833, working as a ship caulker, Frederick tried to escape with three others, but their plot was discovered before they could get away. Five years later, however, he fled to New York City and then to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he worked as a labourer for three years, eluding slave hunters by changing his surname to Douglass.

At a Nantucket, Massachusetts, antislavery convention in 1841, Douglass was invited to describe his experience under slavery. His speech was so poignant and eloquent that he was unexpectedly catapulted into a new career as agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. From then on, despite heckling and mockery, insult, and violent personal attack, Douglass never flagged in his devotion to the abolitionist cause (Britannica).

Frederick Douglass published an autobiography in 1845. The book was a dangerous move for Douglass, since it called attention to him and placed him in danger of being recaptured and returned to slavery. Fearing this, Douglass fled to Ireland and Britain, staying from 1845 to 1847 to speak on behalf of abolition and to earn enough money to purchase his freedom once he returned to America. During his visit to Ireland at the beginning of the great hunger, he met with Daniel O’Connell, and had this to say about his experience:

Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended.

Upon his return Douglass settled in Rochester, New York, and started a newspaper, North Star, which called for an end to slavery.

With the beginning of the Civil War (1861–1865), a war between Northern and Southern states in which the main issues were slavery and the Southern states’ decision to leave the Union and form an independent nation, Douglass insisted that African Americans should be allowed to fight. In 1863, as a result of Douglass’s continued urging, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) asked him to recruit African American soldiers for the Union (Northern) army. As the war proceeded, Douglass had several meetings with Lincoln to discuss the use and treatment of African American soldiers by the Union forces. As a result, the role of African American soldiers was upgraded each time, making them a more effective force in the fight.

Though the victory in the Civil War heralded the end of slavery, Douglass saw that there was still much work to do. The Reconstruction period, as the years after the Civil War came to be known, presented a new set of challenges for the country. While slavery had ended, the racism that went along with slavery was still in place. In 1877 Douglass was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893) to the post of U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia. From this time until approximately two years before his death Douglass held a succession of offices, including that of recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and minister to the Republic of Haiti.

Frederick Douglass died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895. He had played a major role in changing history. After reaching his goal of escaping slavery, he could have lived out his days as a free man. Instead he risked it all by speaking out in favour of freedom and improved treatment for all African Americans (Encyclopedia of World Biography).

Sources used: