Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on February 14, 1818 (he did not know the exact date, but chose this one).
As the Oxford African American Studies Center tells the story, “Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.”
Within a few years Douglass gained fame as an abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to see President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, Douglass was pressed to speak, and after he did, received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.
Following the war, Douglass continued speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on 20 February 1895, having just returned from a rally for women’s suffrage. He was buried in Rochester, NY, where many members of his family still lived.
Douglass’s three autobiographies are still read and respected: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). His famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century.
There are many resources on the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. For those of you who are Lincoln fans, you can combine the two interests in the book The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes.