Originally published in Flourishing February 2011.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in his grandmother’s shack east of Tappers Corner, Maryland in February of 1818. The exact date of his birth is unknown. He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was still an infant and lived with his maternal grandmother Betty Bailey. His mother died when he was seven. Like his birthday, the identity of his father is uncertain.
When Frederick was about twelve years old, his master’s wife, Sophia Auld, started teaching him the alphabet, despite the fact that it was against the law in Maryland to teach slaves to read. Frederick later described Sophia as a kind and tender-hearted woman, who treated him like one human being ought to treat another. When Sophia’s husband discovered her activity, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. Mr. Auld was certainly right about that.
Those remarks made by his master told Frederick that education was his ticket to freedom. He continued his studies, learning to read from white children in the neighborhood, and by observing the writings of the men with whom he worked.
When Frederick was hired out to William Freeland, he taught other slaves on the Freeland plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school. As word spread, the interest among slaves in learning to read was so great that in any given week, more than 40 slaves would attend lessons. For about six months, their study went relatively unnoticed. But, soon enough, area plantation owners became incensed that their slaves were being educated. One Sunday morning they burst into the gathering armed with clubs and stones to disperse Frederick’s congregation permanently.
Later, he was hired out to Edward Covey, who was widely regarded as a “slave breaker”. He regularly applied a whip to Frederick’s back, until Frederick finally fought back—apparently with some success—as Covey never threatened him again.
On September 3, 1838, Frederick successfully escaped his slave masters by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He carried identification papers provided by a free black sailor. He crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, then continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he went by steamboat to Philadelphia. He arrived in New York City within twenty-four hours of boarding the train to Havre d Grace. And, soon after arriving in New York, Frederick married Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in 1837.
As a runaway slave, Frederick continued his studies, and was soon giving lectures on the living conditions, attitudes, and hopes of those still held in bondage. As a fugitive slave, of course, Frederick’s own freedom and safety were much at risk. He traveled to England for a time, and there he found sponsors who purchased his freedom from his previous slave masters in Maryland.
Early in his studies, Frederick had been a Constitutional skeptic, but as he continued to grow and learn throughout his life, he came to agree with Lysander Spooner (1808 – 1887), the great American libertarian writer, that the United States Constitution was an anti-slavery document. This reversed his earlier agreement with William Lloyd Garrison (1805 – 1879), another prominent abolitionist, that it was pro-slavery. Garrison had famously burned a copy of the Constitution in protest of slavery.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate-held territory. Frederick described his emotions as he waited:
We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky…we were watching…by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day…we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.1
The Constitutional question of slavery was settled by the post-war (1865) ratification of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery nationwide, the 14th Amendment (1868), which provided for citizenship and equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment (1870), which protected all citizens from being discriminated against in voting because of race. Sadly, it was another hundred years before black Americans in much of the nation would truly be free and equal citizens.
Yes, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey became Frederick C. Douglass, the famous American social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman. (The name Douglass was taken from Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem, Lady of the Lake.) As Frederick C. Douglass, the former slave became famous throughout the world for his glittering oratory and his insightful and inspirational writing. Frederick C. Douglass was living and irrefutable proof that a black man is fully capable of functioning as a self-possessed, self-actualizing, and self-sustaining American citizen.
At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial, during the presidential term of Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick C. Douglass was the keynote speaker:
Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?2
The crowd, roused by his speech, which was candid in its assessment of “Honest Abe”, gave Douglass a standing ovation. Lincoln’s favorite walking stick, given to him by Mrs. Lincoln, still rests in Douglass’ house known as Cedar Hill3, as both a testimony and a tribute to the effect of Douglass’ powerful public speaking.
On February 20, 1895, Frederick C. Douglass, the former slave who was taught the alphabet by his master’s wife, was invited to a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, he was brought to the platform and given a standing ovation by the audience. Shortly after he returned home, and as he recounted the day’s events to his wife, he died of a massive heart attack.
Today, the legacy of Frederick C. Douglass is still with us. By the example of his life, lived in pursuit of freedom for all people, he literally changed the world. mh
Biographical information used in this essay was drawn from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Douglass# Life_as_a_slave
1 A Biography of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Sandra Thomas, http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/home. html#contents
2 Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, http://www.teaching americanhistory.org/library/index.asp? documentprint=39