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Who is Frederick Douglass?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 23, 2024
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Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was a slave on a tobacco, corn, and wheat farm in Maryland in 1818. His mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey, and his father was an unknown white man. Rumor had it that his father was Captain Aaron Anthony, his first owner.

After Douglass was born, he went to live with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey. He was not able to see his mother more than four or five times after that, since she had to walk twelve miles each way to see him. In addition, she had to be back at work by sunrise or face a whipping. She died when he was seven years old.

When Frederick Douglass was six years old, he began to work as a slave in his master's house. He later wrote about the conditions of slavery. He was only given a long linen shirt to wear, with no shoes, pants, jacket, or socks and fed only boiled corn mush. He often awoke to hear slaves being beaten, including his own relatives.

At age eight, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to be the slave of Sophia and Hugh Auld, relatives of his master's daughter. He took care of their infant son and ran errands for them. Sophia Auld had never owned slaves before and began to teach Douglass to read until her husband told her it was against the law and that a slave should not know anything except to obey his master. However, Douglass continued to read and learn.

As Frederick Douglass got older, he began to question slavery and racial inequality. As a teenager, he opened a secret Sunday school and illegally taught slaves to read. Douglass and other slaves began to plan to escape by boat but were caught and put in jail. He was sent back to work for Hugh Auld again.

Working in a shipyard in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass met many free African-Americans, including his future wife, Anna Murray. They planned his escape, traveling north by train. Murray gave him the money he needed, and he borrowed papers to show that he was not a slave. After three ferries, three trains, and a steamboat, Douglass arrived in New York City a free man. In order to make himself more difficult to trace, he changed his last name twice, finally settling on Douglass.

Douglass and Anna Murray were married in 1838, moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts and later had five children. In 1841, he met William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, and began working for him. A few years later, in 1845, Douglass published an autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which included his original name and the name of his master.

Being in danger of being caught, Douglass left for England, speaking about the evils of slavery. While he was there, some of his English friends bought his freedom, allowing him to return to the United States. Upon his return in 1847, he began his own newspaper, The North Star, soon renamed Frederick Douglass' Paper. Douglass spoke out for women's rights and against racial inequality. His house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Douglass helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army during the United States Civil War. He was able to meet President Lincoln after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. Later in his life, he authored two more books, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855, and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, in 1881. He was named marshal of Washington, D.C. in 1877, recorder of deeds in 1881, and consul-general to Haiti in 1889.

In 1882, Frederick Douglass' wife Anna died. Two years later, in 1884, Douglass married a white woman named Helen Pitts. Although many people, black and white, were upset by this, they remained married. At the end of his life, Douglass spoke out against violence and lynchings of African-Americans in the Southern United States. Douglass died of a heart attack on 20 February 1895. He had hoped to see the end of racial tension in the United States.

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Discussion Comments
By Chmander — On Jul 29, 2014

Speaking of Frederick Douglass, I think it would be interesting if Hollywood made a movie about him. Not only could it cover his upbringing and how he was finally set free, but in between, it could show the brutality he endured during his days as a slave. However, on the other hand, because there are so many movies about slavery (especially with the recent Twelve Years a Slave), people may feel like Hollywood is pushing it.

By Euroxati — On Jul 28, 2014

Has anyone seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave? If you want a more realistic depiction of how badly slaves were treated, it's a very good movie to watch. Also, as Hazali mentioned, more than often when you're taught slavery in school, even though I wouldn't say that teachers sugarcoat the details, they certainly don't cover a lot of aspects that need to be discussed. However, I think one reason is because they don't have enough time to cover the material, and most of all, most kids (especially in grade school) would be very uncomfortable hearing about those facts.

By Hazali — On Jul 28, 2014

During my freshman year of college, in my history class, we had to choose a famous person to write an essay on. Ironically, I chose Frederick Douglass. While reading his autobiography book, it was shocking to hear how badly he was treated. Even though I had learned quite a bit about him in grade school, my teacher never covered the grittier aspects of his life story. Some of this includes waking up to the sound of slaves being beaten, eating only boiled corn mush, and practically walking around naked.

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