Frederick Douglass from the Smithsonian Institution
Occupation: Abolitionist, civil rights activist, and writer
Born: February 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland
Died: February 20, 1895 in Washington, D.C.
Best known for: Former enslaved person who became an advisor to the presidents
Where did Frederick Douglass grow up?
Frederick Douglass was born on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland. His mother was an enslaved person and when Frederick was born, he became one of the enslaved, too. His birth name was Frederick Bailey. He did not know who his father was or the exact date of his birth. He later picked February 14 to celebrate as his birthday and estimated that he was born in 1818.
Life as an Enslaved Person
Life as an enslaved person was very difficult, especially for a child. At the young age of seven Frederick was sent to live at the Wye House plantation. He seldom saw his mother who died when he was ten years old. A few years later, he was sent to serve the Auld family in Baltimore.
Learning to Read
Around the age of twelve, his enslaver's wife, Sophia Auld began to teach Frederick the alphabet. It was against the law at that time to teach the enslaved to read and when Mr. Auld found out, he forbid his wife to continue teaching Douglass. However, Frederick was an intelligent young man and wanted to learn to read. Over time, he secretly taught himself to read and write by observing others and watching the white children in their studies.
Once Douglass had learned to read, he read newspapers and other articles about slavery. He began to form views on human rights and how people should be treated. He also taught other enslaved persons how to read, but this eventually got him into trouble. He was moved to another farm where he was beaten by the enslaver in an effort to break his spirit. However, this only strengthened Douglass' resolve to gain his freedom.
Escape to Freedom
In 1838, Douglass carefully planned his escape. He disguised himself as a sailor and carried papers that showed he was a free black seaman. On September 3, 1838 he boarded a train to the north. After 24 hours of travel, Douglass arrived in New York a free man. It was at this point that he married his first wife, Anna Murray, and took the last name Douglass. Douglass and Anna settled down in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, Douglass met with people who were against slavery. These people were called abolitionists because they wanted to "abolish" slavery. Frederick began to speak at meetings about his experiences as one of the enslaved. He was an excellent speaker and moved people with his story. He became famous, but this also put him in danger of being captured by his former enslavers. To avoid being captured, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Britain where he continued to speak to people about slavery.
Douglass wrote down his story of slavery in an autobiography called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book became a bestseller. Later, he would write two more stories of his life including My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
In addition to speaking out for the freedom of the enslaved, Douglass believed in the equal rights of all people. He was outspoken in his support for women's right to vote. He worked with women's rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and attended the first ever women's rights convention that was held at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
During the Civil War, Douglass fought for the rights of black soldiers. When the South announced that they would execute or enslave any captured black soldiers, Douglass insisted that President Lincoln respond. Eventually, Lincoln warned the Confederacy that for every Union prisoner killed, he would execute a rebel soldier. Douglass also visited with the U.S. Congress and President Lincoln insisting on equal pay and treatment of black soldiers fighting in the war.
Death and Legacy
Douglass died on February 20, 1895 from either a heart attack or a stroke. His legacy lives on, however, in his writings and many monuments such as the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Interesting Facts about Frederick Douglass
Douglass was married to his first wife Anna for 44 years before she died. They had five children.
John Brown tried to get Douglass to participate in the raid on Harpers Ferry, but Douglass thought it was a bad idea.
He was once nominated for Vice President of the United States by the Equal Rights Party.
He worked with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage (the right to vote).
He once said that "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."