Frederick Douglass (née Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey)
February 1818 – February 20, 1895
Notable: Abolitionist & Author
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland. He never knew the exact date of his birth but was most likely born in or around the year 1818 and later chose to use February 14th as his date of birth. As often occurred, Douglass was taken from his mother, Harriet Bailey, while he was still a baby. His mother lived on a plantation several miles away and they would only see each other on a few occasions before she passed away when he was about eight years old. His father’s identity is unknown but he is believed to have been a White man, quite possibly his owner, Aaron Anthony.
Douglass was raised from infancy by his grandmother, Betty Bailey, who also cared for the other children at Holmes Hill Farm. The property was owned by Aaron Anthony who is believed to have raised slaves to supply local plantations such as Wye House which was owned by a local wealthy family. Around the age of six, Douglass was deemed old enough to begin working and joined his older siblings at the Wye Plantation.
Two years later, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to work in the Hugh Auld household as a house slave. It was against the law to educate slaves by teaching them to read or write. Slaves were kept illiterate and ignorant because it was believed that an education would make them rebellious and unfit for enslavement. But, the mistress of the house, Sophia, began teaching Douglass the alphabet until her husband intervened. Yearning to continue his education, Douglass learned what he could from other people in the neighborhood.
A pre-teen Douglass was exposed to religion and the Bible by a Methodist minister and a Black man. Now literate, Douglass was able to read newspapers and books which made him aware of the abolitionist movement. One book, in particular, The Columbian Orator by Caleb Bingham, which contained a collection of speeches allowed him to improve his reading and oratory skills as well as shaped his views on human and civil rights.
Following the death of Aaron Anthony, Douglass became the property of his daughter, Lucretia, who was married to Thomas Auld. This meant Douglass had to move once more to St. Michael’s. After his arrival, Douglass began using the Bible to teach other enslaved people to read during church services which attracted many attendees. His classes also attracted the attention of locals who broke up the meetings armed with makeshift weapons.
As punishment, Douglass was sent to work on Edward Covey’s plantation as he was known for his capabilities as a “slave breaker”. It was intended that Douglass would be reigned in by Covey and trained to begin working in the fields. Covey was a cruel and vicious man who was well known for his savage handling of the slaves he managed. He constantly whipped and beat Douglass in an attempt to break his spirit. Suffering both mentally and physically, Douglass reached a point where he couldn’t take it anymore. As a 16-year-old young man, he decided to fight back and won in a physical altercation with Covey. After that incident, Covey never attempted to beat him again.
Inspired by his physical triumph and a hunger for freedom, Douglass began plotting to escape. In 1835, he and a group of conspirators began working on ideas to escape but the plan went awry. The plot was found out before it was executed and he and the other men were jailed. The failed escape attempt resulted in Thomas Auld sending him back to Hugh in Baltimore where he was put to work in the local shipyards. While working as a caulker, he used the opportunity to gather knowledge that he could use for future plans to escape.
Now in his late teens, Douglass joined a debating club for free Black men through which he met Anna Murray, a free Black housekeeper. Using borrowed papers that belonged to a free Black sailor, he escaped Maryland and traveled North via the Underground Railroad. Arriving in New York City, he sent for Murray and the two were married on September 15, 1838. Shortly after, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where Frederick Bailey adopted the surname Douglass.
Shortly after escaping from slavery Frederick Bailey married Anna Murray, the couple adopted the surname Douglass and settled in New Bedford, Massachusettes. The couple had met while Douglass was still enslaved in Maryland and she aided his escape by helping him procure a sailor’s uniform and providing him with money. They would go on to have five children.
Douglass began attending local abolitionist meetings through which he became aware of William Lloyd Garrison and a subscriber to his newspaper, The Liberator. He was eventually asked to share the story of his life at abolitionist meetings through which he came to the attention of William C. Coffin. With the 1841 Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Convention on the horizon, Coffin invited Douglass to speak about his experiences during slavery and the story of his escape.
During the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Convention Douglass and Garrison finally met. The convention’s attendees were so impressed by Douglass’ speech that the society hired him as a speaker and encouraged him to become a leader in the abolitionist movement. Two years later, Douglass joined a six-month national abolitionist tour of America during which he was physically attacked on several occasions. He endured an especially brutal attack in Pendleton, Indiana where he was chased and beaten by an anti-abolition mob.
Douglass came to be regarded as such an articulate and effective orator that some doubted he had ever been enslaved. Intended in part to counter these doubts, Douglass began working on his first autobiography which would be published in 1845 as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Since running away in 1838, Douglass had managed to avoid recapture by obscuring his history through the change of his last name. But his autobiography included details about his early life that would have made it possible for him to be specifically identified as the fugitive slave Frederick Bailey.
To promote the book and abolitionism while at the same time avoiding recapture, Douglass traveled to Europe for a tour of Great Britain and Ireland where he remained for two years. Through contributions from supporters, Douglass raised enough money to purchase his freedom from Hugh Auld for $711.66. Upon his return to America, Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York, and used some of the money from his tour to launch a newspaper, the North Star. Douglass would continue to publish the paper for approximately 15 years although its form and frequency would undergo multiple changes. In its early years, the paper was mired in debt but eventually achieved a degree of financial stability as circulation grew.
Ideological differences with William Lloyd Garrison created an irreparable rift in their relationship. Douglass began to function more independently within the abolitionist movement and also became involved with other social justice initiatives. His home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, providing shelter and a hiding place for slaves escaping to Canada. He was an advocate for women’s rights and was the only Black attendee at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. It was also during this time that Douglass met John Brown.
In 1855, Douglass published his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. Four years later Douglass traveled to Canada and then on to England to avoid arrest but in this case due to his connection with Brown who had led a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He returned to America in 1860, the same year during which South Carolina seceded from the Union charting a path to the start of the American Civil War.
Due to his years as a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement Douglass had become one of the most visible and influential Black men in America. Beginning with President Lincoln during the Civil War and continuing through the next few administrations, Douglass would meet with the presidents to advocate on behalf of the Black population.
He was amongst those who called for the creation of an all-Black regiment which resulted in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry. Douglass recruited troops for the regiments and pushed for Black soldiers to receive equal pay and fair treatment in the military.
Following the end of the Civil War, Douglass was appointed to various commissions, councils, and other government positions. Most notable was his brief role as the president of the troubled Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, U.S Marshall of the District of Columbia, Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, Consul General to Haiti, and Minister Resident to the Republic of Haiti.
In 1881, Douglass published his final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Later that year his wife Anna Murray died from a stroke after 44 years of marriage. Not to be messy, but it is a part of his public legacy so I don’t want to gloss over it. Two years later, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a White woman 20 years his junior who had been his secretary while he was Recorder of Deeds. As had previously occurred when knowledge of Douglass’ affairs became public, the marriage caused quite a bit of controversy. And Douglass’ decades-long mistress, Ottilie Assing, committed suicide.
Douglass Place was developed by Frederick Douglass as affordable rental housing for Black people in Fells Point, Baltimore. He would continue his work as an orator, writer, and activist until his death on February 20, 1895. Frederick Douglass died suddenly from heart failure after giving a speech at the National Council of Women in Washington D.C. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Cedar Hill, his home in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. was later designated the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
- “Frederick Douglass.” 2019. History.com. A&E Television Networks. December 4, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/frederick-douglass.
- “Frederick Douglass.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 13, 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/frederick-douglass.
- “Frederick Douglass.” 2020. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 19, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-Douglass.
- “Frederick Douglass Timeline.” n.d. The Library of Congress. Accessed June 8, 2020. https://www.loc.gov/collections/frederick-douglass-papers/articles-and-essays/frederick-douglass-timeline/.
- “Timeline of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” n.d. Frederick Douglass Heritage. Accessed June 8, 2020. http://www.frederick-douglass-heritage.org/timeline/.
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