American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass has arguably one of American history’s most colorful stories. Before he made history, he was born in Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818 and like many enslaved children was separated from his birth mother. He would reside with his maternal grandmother until the age of 7.
Douglass learned to read as a house slave, but went on to serve in the field. Thomas Auld was Douglass's second owner and was recounted by Douglass as a cruel master, starving and beating his slaves and breaking up their attempts to worship, read and write. Alud leased Douglass out to other masters who attempted to break his independent spirit with both physical and emotional abuse.
By 1838 Frederick Douglass was 20-years-old, armed with borrowed freedom papers and a sailor suit disguise. He was able to escape to the free North on a train with the help of his love Anna Murray who was a free black woman from Baltimore. They ended up in Rochester, New York where they got married and had five children together.
Photo by J. R. Eyerman
Douglass's newfound freedom spurred the idea for his abolitionist newspaper called The North Star. Along with notable abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, the fight against slavery had begun. Douglass was an editor, orator and the author of famed “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech delivered July 1852.
The now famous slave wrote the first of three autobiography’s in 1845, which graphically painted the grim picture of his life in slavery called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Since slavery was still in effect, Douglass swiftly escaped recapture by fleeing to Great Britain after the autobiography was released. Douglass addressed a London audience on the matters of American slavery one year later while overseas.
Eventually a support group rallied behind Douglass, paying for his freedom so that he could return to America.
"Free pass" letter Frederick Douglass carried.
Back in the United States, Douglass navigated the tumultuous decade of the 1850s, steering a course between extremists like John Brown, who believed the only way to abolish slavery was through armed insurrection, and old friends like William Lloyd Garrison, who called for an immediate end to slavery.
Garrison started an abolitionist paper called The Liberator in 1830. When the civil war broke out, Garrison continued to blast the constitution as a pro-slavery document. He would later die May 24, 1879 in New York City.
John Brown was a radical abolitionist who believe in the violent overthrow of slavery. Brown and his sons led several attacks on pro-slavery residents of Kansas, justifying his actions as the will of God. Brown was eventually convicted of treason and hanged on December 2, 1859.
Later in 1848 the spotlight was again turned onto Douglass’s former master Thomas Auld. Douglass wrote an emotional public letter, which read “I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery.” Ending the letter on a surprisingly tender note with, “I entertain no malice toward you personally,” wrote Douglass. “There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant…I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.”
Auld would go on to tell Douglass in person, “I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place, I should have done as you did.” In which Douglass replied, “I did not run away from you, I ran away from slavery.”
Douglass has become one of the nation’s most powerful voices against human bondage as a influential civil and human rights advocate during the 19th century. He continually blasted the hypocrisy of a slave-holding nation which touted liberty and justice for all.
The many writings and speeches Douglass gave still carry an important lesson for Americans, reminding them to never turn away from the hard truths and to ever stop believing for a better future. He lobbied relentlessly to abolish slavery and knew that beyond emancipation there would be a continued battle for equal rights in America.
Many know that Jackie Robinson is widely known as the first African-American to break the color barrier in baseball, but not many people are aware that Douglass, an escaped slave, was the first ever African American to receive a vote for President of the United States during roll call at the 1888 Republican National Convention.
Douglass will live on as his 200 year birthday anniversary passed in legacy February 10th, 2018. He is distinguished in the staple of black history figures among Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Sojourner Truth and many more famed heroes in history.
Less known facts about Douglass are that he liked to play America's national anthem on the violin, he published The North Star for 16 years and he supported the underground railroad, by which slaves escaped North.
Frederick Douglass statue in D.C.
On the eve of the civil war of Douglass petitioned the Lincoln administration remarking “The thing worse than the rebellion is the thing that causes the rebellion.” Further demanding that the Union allow black men to enlist. Douglass would go on to promote black recruitment for the civil war effort.
Poster recruiting black men to fight in the Union Army in the American Civil War.
After the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, Douglas remained cautious, stating “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.” Douglas went on to die on February 20, 1895. To this day we acknowledge Frederick Douglass’s daring escape from slavery, his perseverance to learn and change the people around him through truth, love and forgiveness.