Frederick Douglass – a summary

The title of Renaissance man would not be inaccurate in describing Frederick Douglass.  Born a slave in about February 1818, Douglass, originally called Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was raised by his grandmother. Denied even the most basic education, Douglass rose beyond life in bondage to a man of intelligence, principles, and influence.

Douglass’ mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey.  The identity of his father is uncertain, but is believed to be his mother’s owner, Anthony Bailey. Like most slave children, Douglass was taken from his mother at birth and fostered by an older slave woman.  He later said that he saw his mother no more than five times in his life.

At the age of 12, he went to live with a relative of his owner whose wife began teaching Douglass to read.  When her husband learned of it, he demanded his wife desist.  Not only was it illegal to educate a slave, but it was believed that if a slave learned to read, he might become dissatisfied with his lot in life and attempt to rise above it.

But Douglass had already obtained the rudimentary skills of reading and continued to teach himself using the Bible and newspapers.

Slave breaker

In 1833, Douglass was hired out to a poor farmer named Edward Covey.  Covey was known as a slave breaker and 16-year-old Douglass was whipped on a regular basis.  On the verge of breaking, Douglass opted to rebel and fought back.  Covey lost the fight and could have sent Douglass to jail, where he would have been executed without trial.  But Covey wanted no one to know that he had been bested in a fight with a slave.

After three attempts, Douglass escaped in 1838 and married a free African American woman named Anna Murray.  Before long, he became acquainted with abolitionists and earned a reputation as an orator, telling his story of slavery and escape to audiences all over New England, and later in the United Kingdom.  It was while in Britain in 1845 that funds were collected to purchase Douglass’ freedom.

Douglass and the President

With encouragement from fellow abolitionists, such as newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass wrote several narratives about his life as a slave. He also owned and edited five newspapers, including The North Star.  He was known as an orator, a social reformer and a statesman. Living in Washington, DC during the American Civil War, he came to know President Abraham Lincoln and advocated emancipation for slaves and equal pay for black soldiers who had joined the Union army.

After the Civil War, Douglass held several government positions, including US representative to Haiti.  In 1872, he became the first African American to be nominated for the post of US Vice President.

Douglass lost his wife, Anna, in 1882.  He remarried in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a white feminist.  The marriage was met with controversy not only because of their difference in race, but also because Helen was twenty years younger than Douglass.

Douglass died on 20 February 1895 at Cedar Hill, a home that he had purchased in 1877.  He and wife Anna expanded the house from 14 rooms to 21, and purchased surrounding lots to expand the property to 15 acres.  Overlooking the Anacostia River as well as the city of Washington, DC, the house is maintained by the National Park Service.

Kat Smutz
For more, read American Slavery: History In An Hour
published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60, and also as downloadable audio.

See also Nat Turner – the Slave Who Killed for God