Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Frederick Douglass is one of the most well-known African American leaders in American history.  Born as a slave in Maryland to Harriet Bailey and a father whose identity is unknown (possibly a white man), Frederick was separated from his mother when he was an infant, and lived with Betty Bailey, his maternal grandmother until he was 7; then Frederick was sent to another plantation, and eventually ended up serving a white family in Baltimore.  At age 12, while he was living in Baltimore, Sophia Auld the wife of Frederick’s “owner,” illegally taught him the English alphabet at the disapproval of her husband.  From this point on, and under the power of his own will and desire, Frederick began to actively learn to read.  After he was hired out to another “slave owner” named Mr. Freeman, Frederick began to teach other slaves on the plantation how to read the New Testament at a weekly Sabbath school.  Frederick's reputation of aiding his fellow enslaveed bretheren in learning to read caught the attention of slaves from other plantations who were also eager to learn. Eventually, Frederick Douglass was teaching 40 slaves a week, but Plantation owners became enraged when they found out about this illegal activity, and one Sunday they burst into the gathering and beat all those involved with clubs and stones, permanently ending these lessons.

At age 16, Frederick was sent away for a year to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had a reputation for breaking the spirit of young enslaved Africans.  Covey whipped Frederick Douglass frequently, and after numerous vicious beatings, Frederick decided to fight back.  After bravely and successfully fighting-off Covey and his cousin, Covey never again attempted to beat Frederick.  After trying several times to escape enslavement, Frederick Douglass finally succeeded on September 3, 1838, by boarding a train dressed in a sailor's uniform, and carrying identification papers that were provided by a free-black seaman.  Frederick eventually arrived by steamboat to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and then traveled to New York.

Once free, Frederick became a fervent and outspoken abolitionist, and by the age of 23, he had given his first anti-slavery speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention.  Frederick’s fame grew as an anti-slavery orator, and in 1845, Frederick began a very successful speaking tour in Europe, giving anti-slavery lectures, and delivering stirring speeches in Ireland and Great Britain to crowded audiences.  Frederick became sort of a celebrity in Europe, and because of his popularity, some British subjects collected money to officially purchace his freedom, ensuring that he would remain free.  After living in Europe for 2 years, Frederick returned to the United States, where he became friends with the white radical abolitionist John Brown, who visited Douglass' home serveral times.  In 1859, John Brown went on to lead an armed insurrection as an attempt to start a massive slave rebellion in Virginia. Even though the insurrection failed, Brown still contributed to the abolition of slavery because his actions dramatically escalated tensions between the North and the South leading to the Civil War.

Writing as a journalist, Frederick Douglass founded several publications, including The North Star, (the most influential black antislavery paper of the era), Douglass' Monthly, an abolitionist magazine, and the New National Era, a weekly paper to serve formerly enslaved African Americans.  Frederick also used his publications to fight for the emancipation and rights of women and other oppressed groups.  In 1848, Douglass was the only African American to attend the first women's rights convention, and as many opposed the right of women to vote, Frederick gave an insightful speech supporting women’s suffrage.

During the start of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass fought for the right of African Americans to serve as soldiers in the Union army, and then he served as a recruiter of African American troops for the U.S. Army.  After the Civil War, Douglass served as President of the Freedman's Savings Bank, a government sponsored bank for newly freed African Americans, and he also supported the presidential campaign of Ulysses S. Grant, who suffocated the violence of the Klu Klux Klan.  Frederick Douglass went on to aid his country in several more capacities: he served as a presidential elector in the United States Electoral College for the State of New York, then Douglass served as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, and was then appointed Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia.  Douglass completed his service to his county by serving as U.S. minister of Haiti from 1889-91.

During his lifetime, Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous and influential African Americans in the world, and he spent that life working to better his country and his "race." Undeniably, Frederick Douglass left a mark so strong that he has become one of the most celebrated figures in African American History, and his enduring legacy still lives on today.  After writing three autobiographies and touring the world, Frederick Douglass died in Washington, D.C. on February 20, 1895.

image
image  Back to The Douglass Family