Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895)

Frederick Douglass is an American who was born into slavery, escaped, and became an orator, a leading abolitionist, and a voice for social change before and after the American Civil War.

Born into slavery, with no accurate record of his birth but remembering his mother called him her 'Little Valentine,' Frederick Douglas picked February 14th as his birthdate. From plantation records in Maryland, Historians have pieced together that Douglass was probably born in 1818. His given name, which he later changed, was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. As an infant, he was separated from his mother and raised by his grandmother. At the age of 6, he was separated from her as well. His mother died when he was seven. At 12, his owner's wife began to teach him the alphabet, although his owner highly disapproved. His disapproval proved to Douglass that "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave."

At 16, Douglass was hired out to a poor farmer who was reputed to be a 'slave-breaker.' The man, Edward Covey, beat Douglass so much his wounds had no time to heal. According to Douglass, the beatings broke him into a personal transformation - he fought back and 'was made a man.'

In 1837 he fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore. She encouraged and aided Douglass in his quest for freedom.

On September 3rd, 1838, he jumped a train North and escaped slavery, disguising himself as a free black sailor with a uniform and papers secured by Murray. From the train, he took a steamboat to a safe house in New York City, and in less than a full day, he made it to freedom. Murray traveled up to New York to meet him, and on September 15th, 1838, they were married.

The couple settled in Massachusetts and took the surname of Douglass, inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott. In 1839 Douglass became a licensed preacher, which built his oratory skills.

In 1840 he traveled to Elmira, New York, to speak. It was a popular stop on the Underground Railroad and started his National reach. By 1843 he had joined other speakers with the "American Anti-Slavery Society" on a tour of the eastern and mid-western United States. Angry mobs of slavery supporters often accosted the tour, and in one instance, Douglass' hand was broken. The injury bothered him throughout his life.

In 1845 he published his first autobiography, Narrative Of the Life Of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It became a bestseller and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition. He followed it up with My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855.

He worked as an advisor to President Lincoln during the Civil War and argued that black men should fight for the Union cause. His famous broadside "Men of Color To Arms! Now or Never!" helped recruit black soldiers, and two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Infantry.

After the Civil War, Douglass served as the president of the Freedman's Bank. He also fought extensively for voting rights for African-Americans and women.

Douglass understood the importance of image and was intentional in the way he was portrayed. His writing and oration were a living testament against the slaveholder's theories that black people were intellectually inferior. But he also subverted the popular portrayal of black people through his portraiture. Douglass sat for so many portraits - intentionally well-dressed, regal, and strong - he is the most photographed American of the 19th century.

His third and final autobiography, The Life and Times Of Frederick Douglass, was published in 1881 and revised in 1892.
His wife Anna died in 1882, and Douglass was devastated. In 1884 he married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist. The marriage caused a lot of scandal, because Pitts was white and was twenty years younger than Douglass.

On February 20th, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C.

Books by Frederick Douglass