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Biography of Social Reformer Frederick Douglass

Updated on April 16, 2013
Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass | Source

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour."

-Frederick Douglass - July 5, 1852.


Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February, 1818, to a slave woman and an unknown white man on Maryland's eastern shore. Raised by his grandparents and aunt in Easton, Bailey hardly saw his mother, who died when he was just seven years old.

When he was six, Frederick's grandmother left him on his master's plantation, abandoning him to experience the brunt of slavery. He was exposed to brutal whippings and left cold and hungry most of the time. At the age of eight, Bailey was sent to live in Baltimore with his master's relatives, a shipbuilder named Hugh Auld, and his wife, Sophia.

"Use the power of spoken and written language to effect positive change for yourself and society."

An Education

At the beginning of his seven-year stay with the Aulds, Frederick Bailey learned about the power of the spoken and written word. Before her husband asked her to stop, Sophia Auld taught Bailey the alphabet, leading to his ability to read and write.

Since it was against the law for Sophia to teach her slave how to read and write, Bailey took it upon himself to gain skills. He would trade his food for reading and writing lessons from the local neighborhood boys. At the age of 12, he bought himself a copy of The Columbian Orator, which led him to discover how powerful the spoken and written word can be to affect positive change.

"Believe in yourself."

Source

Freedom

At roughly the age of 15, Frederick Bailey returned to the Eastern Shore, where he was reminded of the horrors of slavery. He became a field hand for Edward Covey, a "slavebreaker" who was not shy about beating his slaves. During this period in his life, Bailey was "broken in body, soul, and spirit."

During his time as Covey's slave, Frederick Bailey had a physical encounter with his master that supposedly ended "in a draw." In reality, deep down inside, Bailey felt a restored sense of self-worth. He started to believe in himself again. On January 1, 1836, he made a resolution to be free by the end of the year.

When he was 18, Bailey tried to escape but his plan was discovered, sending him back to Baltimore and the Aulds, where he lived for almost two more years. In September, 1838, at the age of 20, Frederick Bailey escaped successfully from slavery, fleeing by train and steamboat to New York City.

Finally settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts as a free man, Frederick Bailey changed his name to Frederick Douglass. There, he lived, with his new bride, Anna Murray. He eventually raised five children with Anna, who remained loyal to her husband's endeavors despite his involvement with two other women, Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing. In 1877, Douglass moved Anna and their children to Washington, D.C., where they purchased a home, Cedar Hill.

After Anna's death in 1882, Frederick Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from New York.

"Take advantage of every opportunity."

Fighting For What's Right

After becoming a free man, Frederick Douglass spent the rest of his days lecturing and publicly speaking out against slavery. He attended as many anti-slavery and abolitionist meeting as he could, eventually lecturing and speaking for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass had the opportunity to work closely with William Lloyd Garrison, who inspired the former slave to spend the rest of his career fighting for what is right.

As a writer throughout his life, Frederick Douglass published his own abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, in 1848, as well as three autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892).

By the end of his career, Frederick Douglass had dedicated his life to fighting slavery, speaking out for women's rights, lecturing about the desegregation of schools, and even advising Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Douglass actively recruited northern blacks to join the Union Army.

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was appointed to several positions, including:

  • President of the Reconstruction Era's Freeman's Savings Bank
  • Charg├ęs D'affaires for the Dominican Republic
  • Vice Presidential Nominee as Victoria Woodhull's running mate ~ Equal Rights Party

On February 20th, 1895, Frederick Douglass died at his home in Anacostia, Washington, D.C.

The Many Images of Frederick Douglass
The Many Images of Frederick Douglass | Source

A Short Documentary on Frederick Douglass

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    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Fascinating story – I had heard of this guy but didn’t really know anything about him. Thanks for sharing. Great Hub.

    • gypsumgirl profile image
      Author

      gypsumgirl 4 years ago from Vail Valley, Colorado

      Au fait - Thank you for reading my hub. I agree that more people need to know about Frederick Douglass and what he accomplished. An honorable man, for sure!

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      More people should learn about Frederick Douglass, an amazing man. Pinned to my "Exceptional Men" board on Pinterest. Also voted up and awesome!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Interesting...courage, determination, and diligence seemed to be his mantra if I read this correctly. Tell me more is what I thought as this ended. I was raised in the South which for many leaves a bad taste in t heir mouth. But my Momma raised me to believe that the color of our skin was not what set us apart...it is the color of our soul rather than defines who we are, she would say.

      Sending Angels to you and yours this afternoon. :) ps

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Interesting...courage, determination, and diligence seemed to be his mantra if I read this correctly. Tell me more is what I thought as this ended. I was raised in the South which for many leaves a bad taste in t heir mouth. But my Momma raised me to believe that the color of our skin was not what set us apart...it is the color of our soul rather than defines who we are, she would say.

      Sending Angels to you and yours this afternoon. :) ps

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