Frederick Douglass was born Frederick “Baily” on a Maryland plantation around Feb. 7, 1817, though no accurate records exist, as he was a slave. He later chose the birth date of February 14 as he remembered his mother calling him her “little valentine.” He never saw his mother in the daylight, as he was separated from her as an infant. He did not know who his father was.
Around 12 years old, his master’s sister-in-law, Sophia Auld, was teaching Frederick the alphabet, despite this being against the law. When her husband found out and immediately forbade it, saying that if slaves could read, they would grow discontent and desire freedom.
Frederick considered this the “first decidedly anti-slavery lecture” he had ever heard, causing him to be determined to read all the more.
Frederick wrote in his autobiography of learning to read from neighborhood white children. He would carefully observe the writings of men he worked with. He remembered reading a newspaper only to have it snatched away from him with a scolding. Frederick voraciously read newspapers, books, and a publication titled the Columbian Orator. He is noted as saying “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Frederick was hired out to the William Freeland plantation where he taught other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school. Slaves would use dirt as a chalk board. Enthusiasm in learning to read drew more than 40 slaves to attend. Neighboring Democrat plantation owners were incensed that their slaves were learning to read, as this made it harder to control them.
One Sunday, slave owners from the surrounding Democrat plantations burst in with clubs and dispersed Frederick’s congregation. Frederick’s owner sent him a “slave-breaker” who whipped him regularly, nearly breaking him psychologically. After a confrontation, he never tried to beat him again. Frederick’s owner rented him out to caulk ships in a shipyard.
In 1837, Frederick fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black in Baltimore. Anne Murray helped provide Frederick with a sailor’s uniform and some identification papers from a free black seaman. On Sept. 3, 1838, Frederick escaped by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland, and from there fled to New York.
Frederick and Anna Murray were married eleven days later by a black Presbyterian minister. The newlyweds Frederick and Anne moved on north to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and joined a black church. They changed their last name to “Douglass” to hide Frederick’s former identity from Democrat fugitive slave catchers.
In New Bedford, Frederick Douglass became a licensed preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. At the age of only 23, he was an accomplished public speaker.
Frederick and Anne Douglass regularly attended abolitionist meetings, where, in 1841 they heard William Lloyd Garrison speak. He was a founder of the Liberty Party, which was replaced by the Free-Soil Party and then replaced by the Republican Party. When Frederick Douglass was unexpectedly asked to speak, William Lloyd Garrison was so impressed that he eventually hired Douglass to sell subscriptions to the anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator.
In 1843, Douglass went on a six-month speaking tour through Eastern and Midwestern states with the American Anti-Slavery Society. He met Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Frederick Douglass wrote of speaking at a convention in Buffalo, New York: “For nearly a week I spoke every day in this old post office to audiences increasing in numbers and respectability til the Michigan Avenue Baptist church was thrown open to me. When this became too small I went on Sunday into the open park and addressed an assembly of 4,000 persons.”
Frederick Douglass was frequently accosted by Democrat mobs, even having his hand broken, which never healed properly.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass published his autobiography, which became an instant best-seller, being translated into French and Dutch. Skeptics could not believe a former slave could have written such an eloquent book so they began to question Douglass’ real identity. Frederick Douglass had to flee to Ireland to avoid slave-catchers.
The Irish were supportive of Douglass, as during the 17th century, more Irish Catholics were sold into slavery than Africans, either by British to the Caribbean or by Muslim Corsair pirates to Africa’s Barbary Coast.
Douglass met with Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell, and then traveled to England where his English abolitionist friends raised over $700 to buy Douglass’ freedom.
Douglass returned to New York where he founded the North Star newspaper and wrote in support of abolition and women’s suffrage.
His motto was: “Right is of no sex – Truth is of no color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”
Frederick Douglass became an adviser to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. He even raised the one of the the first all-black regiments, the “54th Massachusetts,” as portrayed in the film “Glory” (1989), in which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award.
Others early all-black regiments were the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which fought for America during the Revolutionary War; and the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, which fought for the Union during the Civil War, notably in the Battles of Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Spring, Poison Springs.
Frederick Douglass stated: “I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.”
Frederick Douglass told the story of his conversion: “I loved all mankind, slaveholder not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light. … I gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street gutters, and washed and dried them, that … I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.”
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