Frederick Douglass

Famous Slave, Abolitionist, and Women's Rights Activist

"Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren." - The North Star Motto

The Famous Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: A Brief Synopsis

Frederick Douglass was a famous escaped slave, abolitionist and suffragist. His memoirs, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was an instant success, as were his lectures in America and abroad; arguably the most famous of which was the speech 'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July'. Frederick Douglass also advised President Lincoln, was appointed Recorder of the Deed by President Garfield, and Minister Resident to the Republic of Haiti by President Harrison. The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge built in 1850 south of Washington DC was named in honour of his memory, and his home is now designated a National Historic Site.

escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, the famous slave and abolitionist (public domain)

The Famous Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Date of Birth, Parentage and Upbringing

Frederick Douglass was born to Harriet Bailey in c.1818. Whilst he knew little about his father other than that he was white, he had heard rumours that his father was his master, Captain Aaron Anthony. His mother was sent away when he was less than a year old, whereupon he was raised by his grandmother. Frederick Douglass recalled that though he had not seen his mother by daylight, she would walk the twelve miles back from the plantation that she laboured upon to lay beside him at night. At the age of seven or eight, Frederick Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld, the brother of his master's son in law, Thomas.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Learning to Read and Write

Hugh Auld's wife, Sophia, was noted as being kindly in Frederick Douglass' memoirs and taught the young abolitionist the alphabet until discovered by her husband. Cautioned that notwithstanding it was illegal to teach slaves to read, but it also ruined them and would only make them unhappy, Sophia obeyed her husband and stopped teaching Frederick Douglass further. However, after seven years, Douglass learnt to read without his mistress' further tutelage by trading bread to poor white children in return for impromptu reading lessons, and learnt to write by secretly using his young master's copy book.

QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE FAMOUS SLAVE/ABOLITIONIST FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Name: Frederick Douglass
AKA: Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Frederick Stanley, Frederick Johnson
Birth: c.1818, Tuckahoe, Maryland
Death: 20 February 1895
Famed for: Being one of the leading abolitionists and his speech, 'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July'
Slavery Status: Escaped
Trade: Caulker
Master: Captain Anthony and Thomas Auld
Parents: Harriet Bailey
Spouse: Anna Murray (1813-1882) M1838 and Helen Pitts (1838-1903) M1884
Children: Lewis Douglass, Charles Douglass, Frederick Douglass Junior, Annie Douglass, and Rosetta Douglass all from his first marriage

The Famous Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Teenage Years and Cruelty

On the death of Captain Anthony, Frederick Douglass was given to Captain Anthony's son in law, Thomas Auld, in 1832. Whilst Douglass, to his relief, was hired back to Hugh Auld, he was taken back some years later over a disagreement between the brothers. Thomas Auld was not as pleasantly disposed as Hugh Auld, nor did he allow his slaves enough to eat. In order to survive, Frederick Douglass together with the other slaves, including his sister and Aunt, resorted to stealing and begging. Believing the then fifteen year old Frederick Douglass was unruly and needed to be broken, Thomas Auld sent the young slave to a known slave breaker, Edward Covey, on 1 January 1833. Frederick Douglass was whipped almost weekly for the first half of the year that he stayed with Covey, until he surprised Edward Covey by fighting back, an act punishable by death. Frederick Douglass was never again physically punished at the hands of the slave breaker for the remainder of the year.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Trade, a Future Wife and Escape

When the year with Edward Covey was at an end, Douglass returned to Hugh Auld, earning high wages after apprenticing as a caulker. It was here that he met future wife Anna Murray, a laundress and free African American. Murray provided Frederick Douglass with sailor clothing, a disguise which enabled him to board a ship to New York. Frederick Douglass' knowledge of ships and common terminology from the years spent around sailors provided credible cover.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Freedom and Marriage

Frederick Douglass arrived in New York in 1838 and married Anna Murray in the same month. The couple adopted the surname 'Johnson' until they reached New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they took the suggested surname Douglass inspired by the poem "The Lady of the Lake" by Sir Walter Scott. Frederick Douglass became a preacher in 1839 and later was affiliated with the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Tours, Lectures, Mobs and Racial Inequality

In 1843, Frederick Douglass took part in the six month tour consisting of speakers in the American Anti Slavery Society project known as 'Hundred Conventions'. Unfortunately, at various points, Frederick Douglass was met with angered mobs and suffered throughout the remainder of his life with a badly set broken hand as a result of the violence he encountered. On 16 August 1845, Douglass set sail for Liverpool, England upon the ship Cambria whereupon he proceeded to tour around England and Ireland for two years. Despite being told that he was only allowed to travel in second class or with the cargo, the English passengers were eager to hear Frederick Douglass speak about his experience as a slave. This request was made formally by Captain Judkins, who threatened to place infuriated American slaveholders in irons should they continue to cause a scene. Frederick Douglass noted in his works 'My Bondage My Freedom' with some surprise that, his experience on the Cambria aside, he was not subjected to racial segregation - a vast difference from his encounters on his homeland. It was here that he was emancipated by British supporters, who had raised enough funds to settle the cost of his freedom with Hugh Auld; a fee of $711.66. However, on his return home on The Cambria, Douglass learnt that the cabin he had paid for was subsequently assigned to another passenger and he was not allowed to board unless he agreed not to visit the saloon, had his meals alone, and forfeited his cabin. Frederick Douglass begrudgingly agreed but sent a letter to the London Times on 3 April 1847 before the ship set sail. This was met with appropriate indignation by the press and British public.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: The North Star

The British supporters also provided funding toward Frederick Douglass' abolitionist newspaper; The North Star. He hoped that this was another step toward demonstrating that African Americans should not be considered unintelligent or inferior, and at his wife's request, involved his young sons. The newspaper, which also reached other English speaking nations such as Australia and Canada, did not do as well as expected and Frederick Douglass had to remortgage his house in order to settle some of the accrued debt. The reason for the struggle of the paper may be attributed to the fact that whilst Frederick Douglass purposely started the paper in Rochester, away from competition with William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator, many abolitionist friends were already subscribed to Garrison's paper. There was also a differing of opinion amongst abolitionists; some felt that Frederick Douglass' beliefs were too similar with Garrison, another possible reason for the struggle. Frederick Douglass and Garrison parted ways over a difference of opinion over slavery and the benefit of politics in 1847.


Anna Murray, Frederick Douglass' First Wife

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Scandal With Julia Griffiths

Frederick Douglass' English friend, Julia Griffiths, moved to America in 1848 to assist him in his bookkeeping, fundraising, editing and also to tutor his children. She resided with the family for years and became very close to Douglass; some historians have suggested that the two had an affair though there is not any evidence that Douglass announced this. In any event, the friendship caused contraversy amongst the American public; Frederick Douglass would often walk with Griffiths and her sister Eliza, something that many people did not feel was acceptable given that they were white women. In one instance, Frederick Douglass was actually mobbed and dragged away until the sisters found a policeman to break up the fight; a situation that bothered Frederick Douglass' friend and fellow abolitionist, Gerrit Smith, greatly.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Suffrage and The 15th Amendment

Frederick Douglass continued to promote suffrage for women in his paper and gave an eloquent and captivating speech in favour of women's rights at the Seneca Fall Convention in 1848. However, Douglass later disagreed with suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton over The 15th Amendment after the Civil War. Whilst he believed that women deserved the right to vote and that the world would be all the better for it, he also felt that there was not enough support to carry through the amendment Stanton desired. Of the opinion that petitioning the wording to include women may injure both causes, Frederick Douglass supported The 15th Amendment, which only gave African American men the ability to vote. Though this upset several suffragists with whom Frederick Douglass had been aligned, like many other abolitionists, he reasoned that if at least African-American men were given rights, women of both races would be in a position to influence the men that could vote.


Helen Pitts, Frederick Douglass' Second Wife

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Association with John Brown

Frederick Douglass' best work considered by many is the speech known as 'What to the Slave is the 4th of July' in 1852, however, he had given numerous famous speeches throughout his life, all of which demonstrated his formidable skills as an orator. Julia Griffiths returned home to England in 1855, but shortly afterward Frederick Douglass befriended German journalist Ottilie Assing, another white woman with whom he would become close. In 1859, his friend, John Brown, asked for assistance on the raid on Harper's ferry, which Frederick Douglass declined believing that the raid would negatively impact the cause though he was happy to assist the escaped slaves. Fearing that he would be considered an accomplice when the raid failed, he fled to Canada using the Underground Railroad under the advisement of abolitionist Amy Post and others.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: The North Star

The British supporters also provided funding toward Frederick Douglass' abolitionist newspaper; The North Star. He hoped that this was another step toward demonstrating that African Americans should not be considered unintelligent or inferior, and at his wife's request, involved his young sons. The newspaper, which also reached other English speaking nations such as Australia and Canada, did not do as well as expected and Frederick Douglass had to remortgage his house in order to settle some of the accrued debt. The reason for the struggle of the paper may be attributed to the fact that whilst Frederick Douglass purposely started the paper in Rochester, away from competition with William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator, many abolitionist friends were already subscribed to Garrison's paper. There was also a differing of opinion amongst abolitionists; some felt that Frederick Douglass' beliefs were too similar with Garrison, another possible reason for the struggle. Frederick Douglass and Garrison parted ways over a difference of opinion over slavery and the benefit of politics in 1847.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Civil War and Politics

Frederick Douglass' argued along with fellow abolitionists that African-Americans should be allowed to fight for their cause, and liaised personally with Lincoln to this end. Frederick Douglass' son Charles was the first African-American to sign up for three years service with the black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, also accompanied by older brother Lewis. Though initially cynical about Lincoln, Frederick Douglass felt he deserved respect when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, but was dismayed that he did not endorse the right for African American men to vote. Up until Anna Douglass' death in 1882 from a stroke, Frederick Douglass continued to write newspapers and give lectures, and was appointed by President Garfield as Recorded or the Deeds from 1881.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Second Marriage Scandal

Frederick Douglass married his secretary, Helen Pitts in 1884, a lecturer and female rights supporter. This was the cause of much controversy as she was not only white, but almost twenty years Frederick Douglass' junior. The ceremony was presided by Francis Grimké, nephew to Angelina Grimké and Sarah Grimké. Frederick Douglass was appointed Minister Resident to the Public of Haiti in 1889 by President Benjamin Harrison, until Frederick Douglass resigned in 1891.

The Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: Death

Frederick Douglass was to give a lecture at Hillside African Church after he had attended sessions of the Women's Council earlier in the day, but died of a heart attack in the hallway of his house, Cedar Hill, on 20 February 1895. His eulogy was written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and read by Susan B Anthony. Following Frederick Douglass' death, Helen worked to raise funds to establish the house as the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association; upon her death in 1903, the National Association of Coloured Women purchased the property to keep the Douglass estate as a memorial home, which is now under the administration of the National Mark Service and designated a historical site in 1988.

Sources:

  1.  Frederick Douglass - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  2. Frederick Douglass  - My Bondage and My Freedom

  3.  Julius E Thompson, James L Conyers Jnr and Nancy J Dawson - The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia 

  4. Brenda Haugen - Frederick Douglass: Slave, Writer, Abolitionist

  5. Encylopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, Volume II

  6.  Connie A Miller - Frederick Douglass American Hero: And International Icon of the Nineteenth Century

  7.  David W. Blight  - Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee

  8.  C James Trotman - Frederick Douglass: A Biography

  9. North Carolina University

  10. University of Rochester

  11. The Gilder Lehrman Institute

  12. The New York Times

  13. Encyclopaedia Britannica

  14. Frederick Douglass Heritage

 

 

The Biography of Former Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

  • The Biography of Frederick Douglass, for Education and Learning
  • Frederick Douglass and his Efforts to End Slavery
  • Frederick Douglass and his Newspaper, The North Star

 

  • Quick Facts About the Slave and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass
  • Information About Frederick Douglass and his Stance on Suffrage
  • Frederick Douglass: Speeches, Lectures and Tours

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