Frederick Douglass is the second African-American of distinction that we will feature during the 110th anniversary of the NAACP. In this article, we will share the life and legacy of Douglass and his significant contributions to America and to African-American culture as an abolitionist, orator, licensed preacher, writer, statesman, journalist and publisher.
Douglass was born into slavery in February 1818, in Maryland as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His mother, Betsy Bailey, delivered Frederick in her mother’s plantation cabin. Shortly thereafter, Betsy returned to the plantation where she worked, leaving Frederick with his grandmother. After only being able to see him a few times since giving birth, Betsy died when he was eight. At age 10, he was removed from his grandmother’s care and sent to live with another family; eventually, he would land on the plantation of Hugh Auld. Auld’s wife, Sophia, taught Douglass his alphabet and from that little bit of knowledge, he taught himself to read and write. Not long thereafter, Douglass was teaching other enslaved people how to read. Douglass would later say, "knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” When word got around that this former student turned instructor was teaching others to read, he was sold to a man known for being incredibly cruel to his “property.” After several attempts, Douglass was able to escape with some assistance of friends and a free African American named Anna Murray. In 1838, he traveled by train to New York to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles.
Once he arrived in New York, he sent for Anna, who he married. Unable to marry without the consent of his legal owner, he changed his name from Bailey to Frederick Johnson to avoid being discovered. Both he and his wife changed later their last name again to Douglass, after a character from the epic narrative poem The Lady of the Lake. The couple relocated to Massachusetts.
It didn’t take long before he became a leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining acclaim for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. In fact, northerners of the time found it difficult to believe that Douglass had once been a slave. He was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. He began his abolitionist work using his oratory skills to tell of his experience. His most famous work was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
More than 50 years before the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case, in1841, Douglass and a friend were thrown off an Eastern Railroad train because Douglass refused to sit in the segregated railroad coach. He would join other abolitionists and they would travel throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States speaking out against slavery and discrimination. There were occasions when he would be attacked by mobs as he spoke—the most brutal attack was in Indiana.
When he traveled to Ireland and England in 1845, he said he felt relieved of American racial discrimination. He wrote in his autobiography:
Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended ... I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, 'We don't allow niggers in here!’
Douglass remained abroad for two years. So admired by his British friends, they purchased his freedom from his owner, allowing him to return to the United States as a free man. Upon his return, he published his first abolitionist paper—The North Star. Its motto was: "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren." His paper was also funded by the British. While Douglass had been an admirer and a good friend of the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, their long friendship ended because The North Star was in competition with Garrison’s abolitionist paper, National Anti-Slavery Standard.
Douglass also came to consider Garrison too radical. Earlier Douglass had agreed with Garrison’s position that the Constitution was pro-slavery because of its compromises related to apportionment of Congressional seats based on partial counting of slave populations. However, Douglass came to believe that the Constitution could and should be used as an instrument in the fight against slavery.
While splitting with Garrison, he joined with the women’s movement. Douglass was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention. It was at this convention that Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for the assembly to pass a resolution for women’s suffrage. While many in attendance were opposed, Douglass spoke in its favor. He said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. He went on to say,
“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
After Douglass spoke these powerful words, the resolution was passed.
In 1851, the North Star was merged with Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party paper to form Fredrick Douglass’ Paper, which was published until 1860.
Douglass’ interests and attention evolved. He began to focus on education. He, like other abolitionists of that time, believed that education was key for African Americans to improve their lives. He became an early advocate for school desegregation.
Over the years, he would confer with and advise presidents—Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers and Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage. He was later appointed by Benjamin Harrison to serve as the United States’ minister resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti and charge’ d’affaires for Santa Domingo in 1889. He resigned in 1891.
Douglass and his wife, Anna, had five children. In 1877, the family moved to Washington, DC and bought their final family home. He and Anna named it Cedar Hill. It is now preserved as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Anna died in 1882. He was devastated by the death of his wife of 44 years. After a period of mourning, his life began to take on meaning from working with activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In 1884, Douglass married his secretary, Helen Pitts. Both his children and her parents were opposed to the marriage because Helen was Caucasian. In spite of their opposition, they remained married for 11 years.
Douglass died on February 1895, the month in which he was born and the same month that would later be celebrated as Black History Month.
In addition to the several versions of his autobiography, Douglass published: The Heroic Slave, My Bondage and My Freedom, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Among the notable speeches he delivered and that were later published are “The Church and Prejudice,” “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” and “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Frederick Douglass’ work spanned decades before the Civil War and beyond the Reconstruction era and his legacy continues. Now, a 171 years later, activist and journalist Shaun King and his friend Ben Dixon have revived the paper The North Star. King says that it's "necessary for where we're going and where we are as a country on issues of voting rights, police brutality, mass incarceration," that people have a news source like The North Star. He says he wants people to have the information they need in order to take a stand on these issues. You can learn more about this work from the following links:
Anita Fleming-Rife, Ph.D.