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  Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

“I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.”

Born in slavery in 1817, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was a young boy when he was sent to Baltimore to become a house slave. There he learned to read and write. When he was 20, he ran away:

“My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a FREE MAN — one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway [ . . . ] For the moment, the dreams of my youth and the hopes of my manhood were completely fulfilled. The bonds that had held me to 'old master' were broken. No man now had a right to call me his slave or assert mastery over me.”

Frederick Douglass, although free, was still a fugitive. Douglass found relative safety in 1838 with David Ruggles of the New York Vigilance Committee which was linked to the Underground Railroad. Douglass then married a free woman named Anna Murray whom he had met in Baltimore. To further evade capture, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass.

Douglass and his wife moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts but soon discovered it was no paradise. Black and white children attended the same schools, but public lecture halls were closed to blacks. Churches welcomed blacks but they had to sit in separate sections. White employees would not allow skilled black laborers to work beside them. But he also discovered in New Bedford the newspaper of the leading white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator. "The paper became my meat and drink," wrote Douglass. "My soul was set all on fire."

Douglass became involved with the local black community, including the battle against attempts by white southerners to force blacks to move to Africa. In March 1839 some of Douglass' anti-colonization statements appeared in The Liberator. When the 23-year-old Douglass spoke at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison immediately recognized Douglass' potential and hired him as an agent for the society. For most of the next 10 years, Douglass traveled in the northern states, talking about his life and selling subscriptions to The Liberator. He was praised for his elegant use of words and his debating skills. His tall figure, large mass of hair and flashing eyes added force to his speeches that dealt mainly with his personal experiences as a former slave.

Soon, Douglass began to add comments about the racial situation in the North. He reminded his audiences that even in Massachusetts a black man could not always find work in his trade. He described how he had been thrown out of railroad cars reserved for white passengers and how even churches segregated their congregations. Like many abolitionist lecturers Douglass led a poor and perilous existence. Despite this, Douglass had found his purpose in life. As his eloquence and precision of language became famous, audiences began to question the validity of his stories.

To defend his reputation, in 1844 he decided to write a detailed account of his years in slavery despite the risk to his freedom. His autobiography rapidly became a bestseller. For safety, Douglass decided to go to England, where for two years he lectured to win support for the American anti-slavery movement. When Douglass decided to return to the United States, two English friends raised enough money to buy his freedom. The sum of $710.96 was sent to Hugh Auld who, on December 5, 1846, signed the papers declaring the 28-year-old Douglass a free man.

In England, Douglass had acquired a certain independence from the Garrison abolitionist group. Back in the United States, he founded a new abolitionist newspaper with the goal of promoting the antislavery cause and to fight for black equality. Douglass moved to Rochester, New York in 1847 and began his second career as editor of a weekly newspaper, the North Star. On the masthead appeared the motto: "Right is of no sex - Truth is of no color - God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."

During his years in Rochester, Douglass continued to grow in stature as the editor of the nation's best known black newspaper. During that time he met politically active women who served in the antislavery and women's rights movements. Recognizing the help the women abolitionists had given blacks, he demonstrated his support for the feminist cause by attending the first women's rights convention in 1848. Delegates hesitated to demand voting rights as a part of their movement's platform. In response, Douglass spoke convincingly that political equality was an essential step in their liberation.

Douglass also became intimately involved in the Underground Railroad; during the 1850s, his home in Rochester became an important station. At times, as many as 11 fugitives hid in his home. But relatively few of the slaves who tried to escape from the South were successful and Douglass fiercely attacked the fugitive slave laws and the atrocities committed against runaway slaves. In a speech on Independence Day in 1852, Douglass pointed out how differently blacks and whites viewed the day's celebrations: "What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all the other days of the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim ... " Douglass urged blacks to unite for the painful struggle to win their liberty, and warned: "We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."

As the Civil War began, Douglass turned his attention to two goals: the emancipation of all slaves in the Confederacy and the border states of the Union, and the right of blacks to enlist in the armies of the North. In 1863, Congress authorized black enlistment in the Union army but paid them half of what the white soldiers received, gave them inferior weapons and poor training. Blacks were not allowed to become officers. More than 200,000 blacks enlisted in the Union army and 38,000 of them were killed or wounded. Comprising about 10 percent of the North's troops, the black soldiers made their numbers felt on the battlefield and distinguished themselves in combat.

As Reconstruction was under way in the South newly freed slaves labored under conditions similar to those existing before the war. Black Americans still desperately needed an advocate, and Douglass took up yet another fight, that of voting rights for blacks. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment gave full citizenship to blacks. The Fifteenth Amendment, that guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, was ratified in 1870. President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass Minister Resident and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti. Douglass died of a heart attack at the age of 77 on February 20, 1895.

Philip S. Foner. Frederick Douglass. 2nd ed. New York: The Citadel Press, 1969 (1950).

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