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Frederick worked on a plantation owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd where Captain Anthony also worked as a slaver supervisor. Frederick’s grandmother, Betsey, watched over him while he stayed there. In 1826, Frederick was sent to Baltimore, Maryland to work for Hugh and Sophia Auld, in-laws of Captain Anthony’s daughter, Lucretia.
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Frederick lived in Baltimore for about seven years, until 1833. During this time, his job was to look after the Auld’s son, Tommy. Sophia Auld taught Frederick how to read and write even though it was illegal for African-Americans to learn these skills. Sophia continued to teach him until Hugh demanded it stop; fearing that if authorities found out that he would go to prison. Frederick convinced some white children in his neighborhood to teach him when he went on errands. He gave them bread and, in return, they taught him the alphabet, numbers, how to read and write, and the pronunciation of words.
Frederick, now literate, read newspapers while out running his errands and learned of the struggles over slavery. When his slave master’s trusted him enough, Frederick was allowed to begin attending African-American churches in Baltimore. Around the age of 12, Frederick bought a copy of a 19th century book titled The Columbian Orator with the money he had been allowed to keep from his slave work. He diligently taught himself how to speak effectively in public.
When Captain Anthony died, his son-in-law, Thomas Auld, became Frederick’s master and moved him to St. Michael’s, Maryland in 1833. Frederick organized secret schools for slaves as he gained more trust and freedom while there. He started fighting back when whipped, a serious offence, especially startling from a fifteen-year-old. A mob broke up one of the secret slave schools that Frederick had organized and he was caught and sent to “slave- breakers”, who were to employed to stifle rebelling slaves through brutal methods. Frederick continued to refuse his slave status. Frederick planned to escape in 1836, but was caught. After a brief imprisonment, he was sent back to Thomas.
Back in Baltimore, Frederick was sent to a shipyard to learn how to become a caulker. He tried to buy his freedom by joining a slave improvement society of free black caulkers. This attempt was unsuccessful. It was at a slave improvement society meeting where he first met a free slave named Anna Murray in 1837.
Frederick escaped from slavery in September 1838. The first place he went was New York City. He contacted Murray and asked her to join him and the two married soon after her arrival. They had five children over the next eleven years, Rosetta, Lewis, Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Remond, and Annie.
Frederick settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1838, where he worked as a caulker for whaling ships. In order to protect his identity from slave catchers, Frederick dropped the name Bailey soon after arriving. He became known as Frederick Douglass.
Frederick started reading the Liberator while in New Bedford. The Liberator was a journal written by famous abolitionist William Garrison. New Bedford is also where Frederick began attending anti-slavery meetings held in African-American churches where he told of his experiences from time to time.
At a convention held by the Massachusetts anti-slavery society in 1841, Frederick spoke about his slave experiences. He impressed many of the anti-slavery leaders there, including Garrison. Frederick was hired to be a lecturing agent for the anti-slavery cause. Frederick and his family relocated to Lynn, Massachusetts. There he gave hundreds of speeches against slavery. He joined the “One Hundred Conventions” in 1843, along with a whole group of anti-slavery lecturers. It was a tight schedule of conventions that included western Pennsylvania, northern New York, Ohio, and Indiana.
To further his abolitionist career, in 1845 Frederick published his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. It was a quick hit and sold over 30,000 copies in Britain and the United States. The book was translated into Dutch, French, and German. This also put Frederick at risk though, for putting the details of his life in to print, he also told of his escape. To avoid capture and the possible return to slavery he fled to Europe. In August 1848, Frederick left the United States and began a 20 month tour of lectures in Ireland, England, and Scotland. Anti -slave advocates in England raised enough money for and negotiated his freedom. Wanting to start his own anti-slavery newspaper upon arrival in the United States, Frederick started saving money.
At one of the many conventions Frederick had met and made a close friend of Amy Post, a Rochester, New York abolitionist. Frederick contacted Amy Post on October 28, 1847 to announce his intention of starting a newspaper, saying, “I have finally decided on publishing the North Star in Rochester and to make that city my future home.” On December 3, 1847 the first issue of the North Star was published. Frederick began moving his family to Rochester sometime in February 1848.
Frederick’s career in publishing was almost 30 years long. Frederick merged The Liberty Party Paper with his own North Star to make Frederick Douglass’ Paper (FDP) in 1851. Douglass’ Monthly, which was originally just a supplement to FDP, turned into a fully fledged journal. During the Civil War Douglass stopped publishing Douglass’ Monthly. Wanting to be a part of a second paper again, Frederick bought fifty percent interest in the New Era, a Washington, D.C. paper. The New National Era was another newspaper that Frederick influenced. The New National Era had its first issue published the September of 1851.
Besides his major influence in publishing, Frederick was, always and mostly, an abolitionist. He fought against his own slavery, and continued to fight slavery altogether. Frederick lectured widely in the 1840’s and 1850’s. In his now home city of Rochester, Frederick organized a whole series of lectures from 1849-1851. In 1852, Frederick wrote a short abolitionist work of fiction titled The Heroic Slave. It was published in an anti-slavery fundraiser called Autographs for Freedom.
Another anti-slavery effort Frederick participated in was the Underground Railroad. He was influential in the migration of many run-away slaves to Canada. White abolitionist John Brown attempted to raid the U.S. military arsenal called Harper’s Ferry in an effort to start an armed slave revolt. When it failed Frederick, was forced to run away to Canada in October 1859, despite his opposition to the raid due to his political ties to Brown. Other anti-slavery advocates, and dear friends Amy and Isaac Post assisted Frederick in his escape.
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Even on the run, Frederick fought against slavery. He lectured in Canada, then sailed to England and lectured there in November 1859. He returned to Rochester in the beginning of 1860. His daughter Annie died of unknown causes on March 23, 1860, at age 10.
In the midst of the Civil War, Douglass met with President Lincoln to discuss the enlisting of African-Americans in the Union Army. When Lincoln agreed, Frederick helped recruit African-American soldiers by writing an editorial titled “Men of Color, To Arms.” This later became a recruiting poster. Frederick captured the essence of the freedom of African-American soldiers stating “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Frederick also discussed the possibility of abolishing slavery becoming a goal with Lincoln.
Now being backed by the United States President, Frederick continued to fight tirelessly for African-Americans’ rights. He supported and lectured widely for the adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendment, giving citizenship to all males of age 18 and up despite race, color, or previous conditions of servitude. He also spoke out against the increased abuse of African-Americans.
Frederick also fought for the rights of women. He signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. Supporters from the Convention were able to get their message to the public, as well as the government, through a great amount of Frederick’s work. Douglass published “The Rights of Women,” a positive editorial which first showed up in the North Star in July 28, 1848.
Through his women’s activist activities, Frederick became a close friend of Susan B. Anthony, a fellow women’s right activist, and visited her and her family often. Frederick spoke the eulogy for Susan’s father, Daniel, in November 1862. Between 1865 and 1870 though, Frederick split from women’s right activities to focus more on the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
Not everybody Frederick was associated with agreed with him. Many women’s rights activists Frederick worked with, including Anthony, did not support the Fifteenth amendment because it excludes the rights of women. Many abolitionists, including Frederick, believed that before working solely on women’s rights, that African-American rights should be secured. This argument was debated openly and discussed privately. Some women’s right activists believed this was a betrayal, and there was pain on both sides.
Shortly after the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, Frederick began women’s rights work again. In October 1870, Frederick released “Women and The Ballot,” an editorial about women’s suffrage. Frederick also called for an amendment giving women suffrage.
Unexpectedly, Frederick moved to Washington D.C. in 1872 when his home in Rochester was destroyed by fire. He moved here do to his connections to New National Era. This connection failed though; in 1874 the New National Era stopped being published. In the same year, Frederick took over the, destined for doom, Freedman’s Saving Company, a federally-charted company made to help former slaves. The bank declared bankruptcy a few months after Frederick took charge.
Frederick was hired in several government positions while he lived in Washington D.C. Between the years 1877-1881 Frederick was U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia, under President Hayes. In 1881 he was appointed the District of Columbia’s Recorder of Deeds by President Garfield and served in this position until 1886. President Harrison hired him to be the U.S. Minister to Haiti from 1889-1891.
Despite his other objectives, Frederick still strongly yearned for women’s rights. Both the 30th Women’s Rights Convention anniversary celebration and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in Rochester in 1878 were paid a visit by Frederick. He also attended the 1881 NWSA meeting. At the International Council of Women in 1888, Frederick was introduced to the audience by Susan B. Anthony openly as a women’s rights activist. This was one of the first times he had been announced as a women’s rights activist.
Anna Douglass died in 1882. Two years later he married a white feminist from Honeoye, New York named Helen Pitts. There was great controversy that Frederick thought amusing enough to write, “No man, perhaps, had ever more offended popular prejudice than I had then lately done. I had married a wife. People who had remained silent over the unlawful relations of white slave masters with their colored slave women loudly condemned me for marrying a wife a few shades lighter than myself. They would have had no objection to my marrying a person much darker in complexion than myself, but to marry one much lighter, and of the complexion of my father rather than of that of my mother, was, in the popular eye, a shocking offense, and one for which I was to be ostracized by white and black alike.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a feminist who had worked with Frederick on occasion, wrote in congratulations, rather than controversially, “In defense of the right to…marry whom we please — we might quote some of the basic principles of our government [and] suggest that in some things individual rights to tastes should control….If a good man from Maryland sees fit to marry a disenfranchised woman from New York, there should be no legal impediments to the union.”
When Frederick was remarried he was even more faithful to women’s rights. He even attended a National Council of Women in Washington D.C. on February 20 1895. This was also the day he died. The audience gave Frederick a standing ovation and he died shortly after he left. He was buried at his hometown Rochester, New York inside Mount Hope Cemetery.
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