A Day in Black History: Frederick Douglass

Feb. 12, 2019
A Day in Black History: Frederick Douglass

Known as the one of the most influential African-American leaders in the 19th century, Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) was born on February 1818 in Tuckahoe, Maryland. 

Born into slavery, Douglass was raised by his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. His mother was a slave while the identity of his father was unknown. Growing up, Douglass witnessed firsthand the inhumane treatment of slaves in the plantation. 

In 1826, when Douglass was seven, he was separated from his grandmother and sent to work for Colonel Lloyd, one of the wealthiest landowners in Maryland, at the Wye Plantation. 

Shortly after, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh Auld, a ship carpenter, as a caretaker for Auld's toddler son, Thomas. At the age of eight, Douglass learned to read by watching Auld's wife, Sophia, teach her son the alphabet. Sophia Auld noticed Douglass' curiousity in reading, so she taught him a few words. 

Hugh Auld was not pleased with this. He feared that Douglass would become literate—making him "unfit for a slave,"— and try to rebel, so Auld prohibited his wife from giving Douglass lessons. Despite this setback, Douglass began to teach himself and ask white schoolboys for help in exchange for food.

Douglass also began teaching other slaves how to read and write, which angered Auld. As a result, Auld sent Douglass to Edward Covey, a slave owner who was known for emotionally and psychologically abusing slaves deemed as "rebellious." Douglass was whipped daily and made several attempts to run away from the plantation. 

In 1830, when Douglass was 20 years old, he successfully left Covey's plantation and travelled from Maryland to New York on train. Inspired by the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass became interested in social reform and began attending abolitionist meetings in Massachusetts. At those meetings, he shared stories about his experience as a former slave, which garnered a lot of attention. 

On May 1, 1845, Douglass published "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," which vividly chronicled his years as a slave. Within the first four months, 5000 copies of the book were sold.

His firsthand testimony gave readers an in-depth look at the cruel and harsh treatments of slaves, strengthening the Abolitionist Movement to emancipate all slaves.

Concerned that his former slaveowner might try to recapture him, Douglass went on tour for two years throughout Great Britain and Ireland and returned to the United States when he had enough money to purchase his freedom. 

Upon his return, he founded The North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper, which ran issues for several years. Douglass also dedicated his time to advocating for women's right to vote.

Frederick Douglass passed on away February 20, 1985. However, his legacy lives on. In 2018, the University of Rochester awarded Douglass a posthumous honorary law degree. "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" shaped American politics and gave African-Americans and allies alike the momentum to fight for social reform, and it continues to do so today.


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