May 1, 1845 – Publication of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” an Autobiography

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on approximately 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.’”

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Within a few years Douglass gained fame as an abolitionist, author, and orator. On this date in history, he published his first memoir detailing his time as a slave. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass consists of eleven chapters, and is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature to fuel the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century in the United States. Within four months of publication, five thousand copies were sold; by 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold.

After publication, Douglass left Lynn, Massachusetts and sailed to England and Ireland for two years in fear of being recaptured by his owner in the United States. While abroad, he gained supporters who paid $710.96 to purchase his emancipation from his legal owner. He also gained insight into the uniquely American character of racism:

Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!

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.

Douglass circa 1847–52, around his early 30s

Douglass also traveled 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 continued 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.

There are many resources on the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. Lincoln fans 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.

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