September 3, 1838 – Frederick Douglass Escapes From Slavery

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on approximately February 14, 1818. He did not know the exact date, but according to the Library of Congress, he celebrated his birthday on February 14 in memory of his mother, who had brought him a heart-shaped cake on the night that he last saw her.

He was determined to make a better life for himself.

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.”

Portrait of Frederick Douglass, Frontispiece. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself.

He later explained that he posed as a free sailor wearing a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck. He boarded a train bound for Philadelphia. When the conductor came around and examined his papers he recalled in a later autobiography, Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time, 1881, online here:

My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt.’”

Upon reaching New York City, he was given assistance by free black abolitionist and activist David Ruggles.

Soon after, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman whom he had met in Baltimore. He settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his experience as a ship caulker enabled him to find work on the docks. The Library of Congress explains that in New Bedford, Frederick asked a friend to help him choose a new name, since he might be sought under the old name as a runaway:

I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of ‘Frederick.’ I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity. Mr. Johnson had just been reading the Lady of the Lake, and at once suggested that my name be “Douglass.”

He began to travel throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on civil rights and social justice topics.

Douglass circa 1847–52, around his early 30s

After returning to the U.S. in 1847, Douglass started publishing an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York. The North Star’s motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The AME Church and North Star vigorously opposed the mostly white American Colonization Society and its proposal to send blacks back to Africa.

In 1848, Douglass wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, online here, in part to refute charges that it was impossible that someone of his accomplishments could have been a slave.

Douglass continued to travel throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on civil rights and social justice topics, including women’s suffrage. 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.

After Lincoln’s assassination, a bronze statue was commissioned featuring President Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand and holding his left hand over the head of a liberated slave kneeling at his feet. It was dedicated in 1876 on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address to President Ulysses S. Grant and more than 25,000 people in attendance. After Douglass spoke, he received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.

Frederick Douglass in later life

Frederick Douglass in later life

Following the war, Douglass resumed speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on February 20, 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.

One Response

  1. This was really great to read. Thank You.

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