By Mark Lacy
In February of 1818, Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Baily, the son of slave Harriet Baily, and an unconfirmed White father, believed to be the Holmes Hill Farm plantation owner. He later took the name Douglass in his flight for freedom.
It was illegal to teach slaves to read. When Douglass learned this was to prevent slaves from seeking their freedom, he studied the alphabet on his own and found poor White children around his home near Easton, Maryland willing to pass on their school lessons to him. He bought newspapers and printed versions of speeches, and cultivated his political ideology of democracy for all before becoming a teenager. He made several attempts to escape to Pennsylvania, where slavery was banned. When he finally escaped, he continued on to New York City to avoid slave catchers.
An Underground Railroad organizer helped Douglass find work and security in Massachusetts, where he became associated with the American Anti-Slavery Society. Using debate skills that he practiced during his secret association with free Blacks in Maryland, he impressed the attendees at an annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and in 1841, William Garrison asked him to become an agent of the organization. Douglass was 23.
In 1845, Douglass published his true life story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. To avoid being reclaimed by his former owner in Maryland, Douglass toured England, where slavery was abolished in 1838, and lectured to highly-receptive audiences. English sympathizers bought his freedom so Douglass could return to America without fear, though Douglass maintained their support was unnecessary as no man had the right to own any other man. After the English campaign boosted Douglass to the level of international celebrity, in 1947 the 28-year-old Douglass returned to the United States. He created the abolitionist journal, the North Star.
Based in Rochester, New York, the North Star grew to become the most famous abolitionist newspaper in the country. As the editor, Douglass became involved in the growing cause of equal rights and voting rights for women. He associated with the most important activists of the day, including Susan B. Anthony, Garrit Smith, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He worked to associate the anti-slavery cause with that of women's rights and to press for a political solution to the issue of slavery. He successfully ended segregation in Rochester schools.
The hard road to end slavery came with unexpected detours. Following the arrest and execution of John Brown for his October 16,1859 attack on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, Douglass was accused of supporting the operation. He fled to Canada fearing an unfair trial. In 1859 and 1860, Douglass lectured in England and France.
In the presidential election of 1861, Douglass first backed Liberty candidate Garrit Smith and later Abraham Lincoln, believing the Republican abolitionist candidate's victory essential and more achievable. As the Confederate States seceded from the Union, Douglass campaigned for Blacks to join the Union army to fight against the South. Douglass also campaigned for the Emancipation Proclamation, made by Lincoln, effective January 1, 1863. Douglass became an adviser to Lincoln and was charged with planning a mass evacuation of slaves from Southern States should the North lose the war. Even in the favor and service of the President of the United States, Douglass was denied equal treatment by government officials.
In December of 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery and Douglass turned his efforts to achieving the right for Blacks to vote and for Blacks to receive the full benefit of citizenship enjoyed by Whites. In March of 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment gave Blacks, but not women, the right to vote; Women supporters were upset that sympathetic suffrage activists like Douglass had not been able to gain the right for women. Douglass continued to campaign for an end to the violence of oppressive organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. He continued to tour and lecture on a variety of subjects, in addition to holding several government posts. He wrote prolifically on many subjects, including his life and discrimination.
Frederick Douglass has been called "the father of the Civil Rights movement in the United States." For more than 70 years, Douglass struggled for his own freedom from slavery and dedicated his life to freedom for all African Americans. Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895 in Washington, D.C. at 77.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)
My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass (1855)
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881)
"The Meaning of the 4th of July for the Negro" (speech) by Frederick Douglass
"The Lesson of the Hour" (speech) by Frederick Douglass
A biography of Frederick Douglass
On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Bob Marley by Gregory Stephens (1998)
More Information On Line:
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress
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