Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass
Escaped Slave, Leading Abolitionist 1817(?) – 1895

The struggle to abolish slavery depended on the cooperation of thousands. Politicians and clergymen, men and women, whites and blacks all worked together in the cause of freedom. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, entire armies were dedicating their lives to the cause. But among these champions of liberty, Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become one of the nation’s most eloquent writers, editors, and speakers, was perhaps the most influential. The most important African American writer and political figure of the nineteenth century, he proved the equality of the races at a time when even antislavery activists treated African American as inferiors.
   Born Frederick Augustus Bailey, Douglass never knew his father; barely knew his mother, a slave from Talbot Country, Maryland; and never knew his own birthday. Initially raised by relatives on a plantation, he was sent to Baltimore before he was nine years old to serve the family of master. As a slave growing up in a big city, Douglass enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom. He did not participate in the backbreaking labor that characterized plantation life, he was not confined to the poverty of plantation slave quarters, he was seldom whipped, and most remarkably, he learned to read and write. As a teenager, against his master’s orders, Douglass educated himself by reading books and newspapers he found in the course of his workday. Armed with the knowledge he gathered from books, he dreamed of an escape to the free North.
    In 1838, while working in Baltimore shipyard, Douglass obtained fake documents claiming that he was a free man and used them to escape to New England. A fugitive slave in an unfamiliar region, he lived in constant fear of being captured and sent back to his masters. He assumed the name Frederick Johnson, and later Frederick Douglass, to confuse slave catchers.
    Settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass continued to confront racial prejudice; no one would hire him to work as a caulker in the local shipyard. He therefore work as an unskilled laborer until he could find some other means of supporting himself and his growing family. (Douglass and his wife would ultimately raise five children).His break came in 1841, when he was asked to speak at an antislavery meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Douglass astounded his white audience with his passion and eloquence. The American Anti-Slavery Society immediately hired him to travel the country as its spokesman. As a public speaker, he faced two dilemmas. First, he put himself in plain view of the slave catchers who were still trying to bring him back to Baltimore. Second, he had difficulty earning credibility; unable to believe that a slave could speak so brilliantly and intelligently, white audiences often doubted the truth of his story. In response to the first dilemma, Douglass kept moving for three years and occasionally fled to Europe to avoid capture. In response to the second dilemma, he wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845 to prove that he had indeed been a slave.
    Unusual among slave narratives of the era, Douglass’s Narrative includes the actual names of owners and plantations. In this way, it ensures skeptical readers that it is a true account of a slave’s life. The Douglass who emerges from Narrative is a resourceful, self-educated man who refuses to submit to his masters. Strong in a body, mind, and spirit, he serves as a model of determination and persistence. In later autobiographies, including My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), Douglass would expand his account and shift its emphasis to meet the changing political needs of the African American community. But the short, powerful Narrative of 1845, with its emphasis on personal strength and resistance, remains the classic account of slavery in American literature.
   In 1847, Douglass’s European friends purchased his freedom, allowing him to return to the United States without fear of capture. He settled in Rochester, New York, and founded The North Star, an antislavery newspaper. In The North Star as well as in his later journals, Frederick Douglass’s Weekly and Douglass’s Monthly, he began to criticize the pacifist abolitionist movement and, as he had in Narrative, call for a more active and occasionally violent resistance to slavery. For a short time, he supported radicals such as John Brown, who led bloody antislavery attacks in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the 1850s. Douglass also supported slavery’s political opponents, such as the Liberty Party and the newly formed Republican Party. And he offered his house as a stop on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of people who helped slaves escape to the North and to Canada. By the beginning of the Civil War, he had earned the confidence of President Lincoln and helped recruit soldiers – including two of his sons – to fight in the Union’s first black regiments.
   After the war, Douglass returned to the podium to rally support for the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, which expanded citizenship privileges to include any person born in the United States; And the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted all men the right to vote. He also championed women’s equality and was the vice-presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872. In his later years, he even held several government positions, including an ambassadorship to the Republic Haiti.
   Thus Douglass remained a powerful figure in the nation for more than fifty years, assembling a record of service that would have been remarkable in any context but was particularly remarkable for a man born into slavery. And through his writings, especially his 1845 Narrative, he remains a central figure in American culture today.

More detailed information can be found in  the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.