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People have heard about what happened to slaves in the America in the 19th century, mostly through history books or the news, but it is a rare opportunity to get a window to a former slave’s life to see what life was really like and how he dealt with such horrible conditions of slavery. But thanks to Frederick Douglass, we have the insight and knowledge of the horrors of slavery, from the book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, to speaking publicly in numerous places about slavery, and the abolition movement he helped start.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. His actual birth name was Frederick Bailey, changing his name only after he escaped slavery. He didn’t actually know the date when he was born, he estimated it after he was an adult. Douglass first lived with his grandmother, Betty Bailey, but when he was young, Douglass lived in the home of a plantation owner, who could have been his dad. On the plantation, there was a ban to not let the students learn to read or write, but the owner’s wife taught him the alphabet anyways. From there, he taught himself to read and write. By the time he was hired out to work under William Freeland, he was teaching other slaves to read, using the Bible. As Douglass became more well known for teaching other slaves to read, his owner took him and transferred him to Edward Covey, who was very harsh on the slaves. Douglass tried escaping multiple times but failed, but eventually escaped in 1838, going to New York and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles. When he moved to New York, he met Anna Murray, a free black woman who escaped slavery from Baltimore as well. They got married on September 1838. They would have five children together. After their marriage, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they met Nathan and Mary Johnson, a married couple who were born “free persons of color.” It was the Johnsons who inspired the couple to take the surname Douglass.
In New Bedford, Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement. During these meetings, he was exposed to the writings of abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison. The two men eventually met when both were asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting, during which Douglass shared his story of slavery and escape. It was Garrison who encouraged Douglass to become a speaker and leader in the abolitionist movement. By 1843, Douglass had become part of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Douglass was physically assaulted several times during the tour by those opposed to the abolitionist movement. In one attack, he lost some use of his had when it was broken.
Two years later, Douglass published the first and most famous of his five autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. For readers, both when it was written to the modern era, the book helped people understand what life was like for blacks before the abolition of slavery. It also shows how people could get treated so poorly, like they are sub-humans, and how sometimes people use religion as a scapegoat, for them to dehumanize and control others. In my opinion, the book that he wrote was one of the most important things he did in his life, if not the most important thing he did. The book shows a young man’s courage and strength in the face of adversity, how slaves were treated, and how slave owners could enjoy brutality. In the book, it reveals that slave owners did not treat slaves well. They would often beat the slaves if they woke up even a minute later than intended, and made then feel sub-human. There are a lot of examples of this in the book. On page 12, Douglass said that slaves sang as they went from one farm to another. The owners and “white folk” believed it to be a sign of happiness from the slaves, but Douglass believes it to be how lamentable the slaves are. “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.” Douglass also shows how pitiless the masters are. He remembers of a girl who was murdered by the owner’s wife after her baby would not stop crying. On page 21, Douglass recalls “The offence for which this girl was thus murdered was this:—She had been set that night to mind Mrs. Hicks’s baby, and during the night she fell asleep, and the baby cried.” This book, at its time, really helped the abolitionist movement. Voices from former slaves were very rare, and examples of brutality like that happening in the South pushed a lot of Northerners and even a few Southerners to rethink slavery and became an abolitionist. The book also showed how heartless the owners were. Douglass wrote about how easily the owners could hit, abuse, and even murder slaves without even thinking twice about it. For example, there was a woman that taught Douglass the alphabet. But when her husband learned about it, he told her to stop learning lessons, and not only did the wife stop the lessons, but she became really cold and not talking to Douglass.
Later that same year, Douglass would travel to Ireland and Great Britain. While overseas, he was impressed by the relative freedom he had as a man of color, compared to what he had experienced in the United States. During his time in Ireland, he would meet the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would become an inspiration for his later work. Douglass also delivered what would later be viewed as one of his most famous speeches, in England, the so-called “London Reception Speech.” This speech was pretty important, as it showed the English people how horrible slavery is, and to get their support in stopping and making slavery illegal. “I have on my back the marks of the lash; I have four sisters and one brother now under the galling chain. I feel it my duty to cry aloud and spare not. I am not averse to having the good opinion of my fellow-creatures. I am not averse to being kindly regarded by all men; but I am bound, even at the hazard of making a large class of religionists in this country hate me, oppose me, and malign me as they have done—I am bound by the prayers, and tears, and entreaties of three millions of kneeling bondsmen, to have no compromise with men who are in any shape or form connected with the slaveholders of America. I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it.” When he returned to the United States in 1847, Douglass began publishing his own abolitionist newsletter, the North Star. It was pretty successful in New York and other progressive states. On page one of the newspaper, Douglass says why he published the newspaper: “to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects” and to “promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people.” He writes stories about slavery in the newspaperas well. He also writes that black people are independent and don’t need white people to do things for them: “No white men can do for them what they can do for themselves.” He also was an activist for women’s rights. He was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering of women’s rights activists in New York in 1848. He would also add women’s rights issues in the North Star. The newsletter’s name was changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, and was published until 1860, just before the start of the Civil War. During the war, Douglass spoke and worked to end slavery, as well as to led black Americans to vote. Frederick Douglass also met and was friends with Abraham Lincoln. They both were incredible forces in stopping slavery. Douglass met with Lincoln three times during Lincoln’s presidency to discuss issues such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. After Lincoln died, Douglass was asked to speak at the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park in 1876. After the war, Douglass became a government official, meaning that he was the first black man to hold high office. He also continued speaking and advocating for African-American and women’s rights.In 1888, he became the first African-American to receive a vote for President of the United States, during the Republican National Convention. He did lose the nomination, though.
Douglass also is known for his quotes, all said in his speeches. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. This quote is powerful because it is telling people that if you want something, you have to fight for it, no matter what it could mean. Another quote is “In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.” ― Frederick Douglass. This means that Douglass loved everyone: he didn’t discriminate, but just wanted black and white people to peacefully coexist in society.
Douglass never retired: he spoke publicly, wrote books, and protested to get rights for other minorities, like women, until he died in 1895. He died after suffering a heart attack, in Washington D.C. He was 77. His work still inspires people today, from maintaining integrity and keeping core values, and fighting for what is right. Without Douglass, the United States would definitely be different.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Doubleday, 1973.
- PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1539.html.
- “Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm.
- Editors, History.com. “Frederick Douglass.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/black-history/frederick-douglass.
- “American Experience – Frederick Douglass, Pacifism, and Abolitionism.” Twin Cities PBS, www.tpt.org/american-experience/video/american-experience-frederick-douglass-pacifism-and-abolitionism/.
- “Frederick Douglass.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 Apr. 2019, www.biography.com/activist/frederick-douglass.
- Sadler, Stephanie. “American History in London: The Opportunity Now Afforded Me.” American History in London: The Opportunity Now Afforded Me, capaworld.capa.org/american-history-in-london-f.-douglass.
- “22 Frederick Douglass Quotes to Make You Fight to Stop Ignorance.” Goalcast, 14 Feb. 2018, www.goalcast.com/2018/01/01/frederick-douglass-quotes/.
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