Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist
Frederick Douglass (c. 1817-1895), the son of an unknown white father and a black mother (Harriet Bailey), was born in Maryland. He spent the first 21 years of his life as a slave, working as a house servant, a field hand, and a shipyard laborer. During his childhood, a kindly mistress taught him the alphabet while he was in her service, and he then taught himself to read and write.
He was once imprisoned for twice attempting to run away, but in 1838 he finally escaped bondage and married a free black woman. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and he took the name Frederick Douglass (his slave name had been Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), and worked as a day laborer.
After addressing an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, he became a full-time agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. By the mid-1840s, he was famous for his eloquence on behalf of his people. He went on to become a brilliant speaker, writer, editor and public servant. Salem’s old Town Hall provided a public place where many national figures spoke their minds on certain causes and issues of the day. Frederick Douglass lectured there in support of the anti-slavery movement.
To refute rumors that he had never been a slave, he wrote and published, in 1845, his story of being in bondage. Its title was NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS. He feared, however, that the book would bring about his arrest and re-enslavement, so he fled to England, where he spent the next two years lecturing on the evils of slavery.
The money he earned allowed him to purchase his freedom. After returning to the U. S. in 1847, he resumed work in Rochester, N. Y. for the abolitionist cause. This is where, for the next 17 years, he published a weekly anti-slavery newspaper aimed at blacks called the NORTH STAR (later re-titled FREDERICK DOULASS’S PAPER).
Douglass was greatly influenced by William Lloyd Garrison and his LIBERATOR newspaper. But when the NORTH STAR went into publication it caused a break between the two men. Garrison was strongly against a separate black press. Unlike Garrison, Douglass favored the use of political methods.
Douglass also lectured in support of the Woman’s Suffrage movement. He was in attendance in 1848 at the first Woman’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. After the Declaration of Rights had been read, Douglass rose and stated that freedom was not divisible according to sex or color. This was just enough to pass the resolution; but just barely.
During the Civil War (1861-65) he urged blacks to take up arms in support of the Union, and helped organize two black regiments. After the war, he fought for blacks to be granted full civil rights. During Reconstruction, he continued to urge civil rights for his people.
There was much public criticism in 1884 when Douglass married a white woman. In answer to his critics, he simply commented: “My first wife was the color of my mother, and the second, the color of my father.”
Douglass was very politically active in his final years, holding a number of federal jobs, the last one as U. S. minister to Haiti (1889-91). He became quite wealthy, and bought a 14-room house on 14 acres of land overlooking Washington, D. C. and named it Cedar Hill. The home is now a museum operated by the National Park Service.
Frederick Douglass died on Feb. 20, 1895, a day he had spent attending a woman’s suffrage convention. In 1941, LIFE AND TIMES OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS was published as the final, revised edition of his autobiography.
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