...in 1841, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, addressed a white audience for the first time when he spoke to a gathering of abolitionists on Nantucket. "It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering," he later wrote. While his speech may have been halting, it had immediate impact. Leaders in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society invited him to work with them. He quickly established himself as a formidable orator. Within five years, Douglass had a national and international reputation. He wrote three autobiographies, edited several newspapers, took a leading role in the woman's movement, and served for over half a century as an untiring advocate for racial justice.
Frederick Douglass's speeches were so eloquent and polished that his listeners sometimes questioned the authenticity of his story. How could a man who had been enslaved since birth, who had had no formal education be so knowledgeable and articulate? As a fugitive, Douglass gave few specific details of his life in the South, further fueling suspicion. Prominent members of the Massachuetts Anti-Slavery Society advised him to "have a little of the plantation speech . . . it is not best that you seem too learned." Douglass would not degrade himself. Instead, in 1844 he wrote an autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself.
He was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818. No one knows the exact date since slave births were not a matter of public record. His maternal grandparents raised him, and he remembered seeing his mother only a few times when she stole away at night to visit him. As he understood it, the man who owned him was his father, but this afforded him no protection from the cruelties of chattel slavery. When he was eight, he was sent to serve his master's relatives in the port city of Baltimore.
His mistress there taught him the basics of reading, although once her husband learned of it, he put an immediate end to the tutoring. The boy understood the power of literacy and used every means possible to learn. Living now in a large city, he met free black people, had the opportunity to read about the anti-slavery movement in the North, and gained a greater degree of independence.
When he was 16, his owner decided the youth should return to the plantation. Recognizing and fearing Frederick's strength, he promptly hired the teenager out to a man known for his ability to "break in" slaves. The man's efforts to beat the young man into submission failed. Frederick secretly taught both free and enslaved blacks to read, and together with four other slaves, he made plans to escape. The plan was uncovered and in 1836 he was sent back to Baltimore.
On September 3, 1838, he disguised himself as a sailor; using seamen's papers borrowed from a friend, he took a north-bound train to Philadelphia. After a brief stop there, he made his way to New York City, where on September 15thhe married Anna, a free black woman he had fallen in love with in Baltimore. The couple continued their journey to New Bedford. Frederick had learned to be a ship's caulker in Baltimore, and he expected to find work in New Bedford's thriving whaling industry.
Although many of the city's Quaker leaders supported the anti-slavery movement, Douglass found such "strength of prejudice against color, among the white caulkers, that they refused to work with me, and of course I could get no employment." He did anything and everything he could to earn a living: sawed wood, dug cellars, shoveled coal, swept chimneys, and loaded and unloaded vessels.
The Douglasses stayed in New Bedford for three years, adding a daughter and son to their family. Reading William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator set his soul "all on fire" and spurred him to speak at the black abolitionist meetings he was attending. After his speech on Nantucket, he "became known to the anti-slavery world."
In 1841 the family moved to Lynn; he began traveling widely, giving hundreds of speeches. "I never entered upon any work with more heart and hope. All that the American people needed, I thought, was light. Could they know slavery as I knew it, they would hasten to the work of its extinction." He was overly optimistic, but he persevered, even when faced with hecklers or men bent on violence. He soon went far beyond simply telling his story and urging the immediate abolition of slavery; he also tackled the unpopular topic of race prejudice in the North.
Of the many slave narratives published in the nineteenth century, Douglass's first autobiography was the most widely read. It sold briskly in the United States and Britain and was translated into French, German, and Dutch. However, it also significantly increased the danger of his being captured and returned to Maryland. Friends urged him to go to England.
In August 1845, Douglass left his family, which now included four children, and sailed for Europe. He stayed for 20 months and enjoyed a feeling of equality he would never experience again. He could board any train, enter any restaurant, sleep at any hotel none of which he was free to do in the United States. He spoke to enthusiastic audiences and met influential people.
Friends urged him to move his family to England, but he felt compelled to return to the U.S. To ensure his safety, English supporters purchased his freedom for £150 (almost $16,000 in today's dollars). When he sailed for home in April of 1847, he was legally a free man.
He was a changed man in other ways as well more self-confident and self-reliant. That December, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, and launched a weekly paper, The North Star. It promoted abolitionism, African American rights, temperance, and woman's rights. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, he publicly urged civil disobedience and made his home a refuge for escaped slaves. By that point, Frederick Douglass was widely recognized as the leading spokesman for black Americans.
When the Civil War broke out, he urged President Lincoln to allow black men to enlist in the Union army. When Lincoln finally agreed in 1863, Douglass recruited volunteers to fill the ranks of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. He lobbied tirelessly for passage of the 15th Amendment, convinced that enfranchisement was essential for the protection of African American rights. In his final decade of life, he denounced the increasingly harsh segregation measures being passed in the South and the appalling spread of lynching. He personally appealed to President Benjamin Harrison for an anti-lynching law.
Frederick Douglass was one of the most stalwart supporters of women's rights. On the morning of February 20, 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Council of Women. Later that day, the man Lincoln had described as "one of the most meritorious men, if not the most meritorious man, in the United States" died of a heart attack. He was 77 years old.
African-American History (MacMillan Compendium, 1996).
American National Biography, Volume 6 (Oxford University Press, 1999).
Douglass Autobiographies (reprinted by Penguin Books, 1994).
Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, by Nathan Irvin Huggins ( Scott Foresman & Company, 1980).