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Frederick Douglass: African American Abolitionist, Orator, and Journalist

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Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass.

Growing up a Slave

Holme Hill Farm, owned by Aaron Anthony, was situated next to the Tuckahoe River on Maryland’s Eastern shore. Anthony owned six hundred acres and thirty people. As well as managing his own farm, he was the overseer of the much larger Wye Plantation a few miles down the road. In his handwritten records, Anthony recorded the birth of a male slave on his farm: “Frederick Augustus, son of Harriet, Feby. 1818.” Frederick was probably born in his grandparent’s cabin situated on the bank of the Tuckahoe. His grandmother Betsey was one of the Anthony’s slaves and her husband was Isaac Bailey, a free black man. His father was an unknown white man, rumored to be Anthony, and his mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey, who had some Indian ancestry. As was typical of the life of a slave, he was separated from his mother at an early age and seldom saw her again.

At about age ten, he was sent to Baltimore to live with the family of Hugh Auld, a relative of Anthony. Life in Baltimore was much easier than it was on the plantation, and there Frederick slept in a bed for the first time. Mrs. Auld was a religious woman and read the Bible aloud. Frederick, curious about the stories she read, wanted to learn to read himself. Without her husband’s knowledge, she taught young Frederick the rudiments of reading. Once Mr. Auld found out about the reading lessons, he put an immediate stop to the lessons--slaves that could read were dangerous! But Mrs. Auld had lit a spark within Frederick, and he began to teach himself to read using scraps of newspapers he found on the street. He also convinced some of his young white friends to help him learn to read. Frederick would live in Baltimore with the Auld family for seven years, then he was returned to the possession of Hugh’s brother, Thomas.

As a teenager Frederick was hired out to a local farmer, Edward Covey, as a field hand. Covey was known for his poor treatment of the slaves working on his farm. Later he recalled that by mid-summer he was “broken in body, soul, and spirt.” At about age sixteen, Covey beat Frederick and he instinctively fought back. From that point on, Covey never beat him again. Normally the punishment for a slave attacking his master was death, but Frederick was possibly spared this fate because he was a hired hand of Covey rather than one of his personal slaves. After the hard year working for Covey, he was returned to his owner, Thomas Auld.

Auld once again hired his services out to a local farmer. This time the master was more agreeable, and Frederick later described him as “the best master I ever had, until I became my own master.” Early in the new year of 1836, Frederick made plans to escape the life of a slave. His scheme was discovered, and he and his four fellow conspirators were caught and jailed. Thomas Auld sent him back to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld and his family with the promise that if he would behave and learn a trade, he would gain his freedom at age twenty-five. Frederick found employment at a local shipyard as a ship’s caulker, where he earned $6 to $9 per week, but since he was still a slave he had to give most of his wages to Hugh Auld.

Frederick was still very interested in improving himself and joined the “East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society,” a debating club for young free black men. Through the club, he met his future wife Anna Murray, who was a free black women working in Baltimore as a housekeeper. After a disagreement over his working arrangement with Auld, he feared he might be “sold south” for plantation work, leaving but one recourse–escape!

The Escape to Freedom

Anna and Frederick plotted his sprint to freedom, setting the date for September 3, 1838. Anna sold two feather beds to finance the escape while Frederick borrowed a retired black seamen’s protection papers to legitimize the journey. On the morning of September 3, dressed in a sailor’s uniform, he took a train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he traveled by steamer to Philadelphia, reaching free soil by night fall. Next he boarded the night train to New York City and arrived on the morning of the fourth. Until he could locate Anna, fearful of being abducted by “slave catchers,” he slept on the wharves.

Anna traveled to New York where the pair were reunited and married on September 15. As a runaway slave, he was not safe in New York, which forced the couple to travel to the whaling port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. To protect their identity, the newlyweds took the last name of Douglass. Frederick Douglass found work loading ships, shoveling coal, and sawing wood. Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass moved into a small rental house on Elm Street and joined the New Bedford Zion Methodist Church.

The Orator

In New Bedford, Douglass became involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery. He subscribed to the abolitionist paper the Liberator, printed by William Garrison, to keep abreast of movement. In 1841, he attended the convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket, where he was asked to address the convention and tell about his days in slavery. The Massachusetts chapter was part of the larger American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833 with the purpose of ending slavery by peaceful means. His speech was so well received that he was asked to become a speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In his new role, he took part in the Rhode Island campaign against the new constitution that proposed the disfranchisement of blacks. Fearful of being captured, in his speeches he was careful not to divulge too much information about his former life as a slave.

As his notoriety grew, he became a leading black activist for the abolitionist cause; consequently, he also became an obvious target of the pro-slavery groups. While traveling around the northern states delivering his speeches, hecklers and pro-slavery activists were a constant cause for concern. With his booming voice and commanding presence--he was over six feet tall with a large frame--he could shout down the hecklers; however, a violent and angry gang of men was a different matter. In 1843, during an outdoor meeting in Pendleton, Indiana, he was attacked and his right arm was broken. The break was set improperly, and he would never regain the full use of his hand. The life of a black abolitionist in antebellum America was not an easy one.

The title page of the 1845 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The book was popular and within four months of first publication, five thousand copies were sold. By 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold.

The title page of the 1845 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The book was popular and within four months of first publication, five thousand copies were sold. By 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold.

The Long Road to Freedom

As he became a more popular speaker and more polished in his delivery, some people began to doubt his story of being an escaped slave with no formal education. To tell his story, he wrote an autobiography entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. His fellow abolitionists advised him not to publish the book as he would open himself up to possible re-enslavement. After the book was published in 1845, it sold well and was translated into other languages. Fearing for his own safety, he traveled to Great Britain and Ireland, where he stayed for two years.

Anna remained behind with the children, supporting the family by sewing for others and with money from the sales of the Narrative. Since slavery had been abolished in Great Britain over a decade before, he experienced true freedom while traveling about the country. Seeing in England how the races could live as equals made him more ardent in his desire for emancipation of the American slaves. While in England, British supporters rallied behind Douglass and raised money to purchase his freedom from his former master, Thomas Auld, for £150. His English supporters encouraged him to remain in Europe, but he returned to his wife and children in Massachusetts in the spring of 1847.

Journalist and Activist

Returning to America as a free man, he established an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star with funds from his supporters in Great Britain. The North Star appeared under the motto “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.” The newspaper was published for the next seventeen years. He remained active in the anti-slavery cause, continuing to lecture around the country.

He was also a supporter of the women’s suffrage cause, feeling that women’s lack of the opportunity to vote was kin to the enslavement of colored peoples. In 1845 he met a school teacher in Rochester, New York, named Susan B. Anthony, and she became prominent in the women’s suffrage movement. Douglass became more involved in the movement to give women the right to vote and was a speaker at the first national women’s rights convention, held in Worcester, Massachusetts, in October 1850. While living in Rochester, he enjoyed an active social life with fellow activists, meeting with friends in Anthony’s home.

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With many free blacks in the northern states there was a need for schools to provide an education to young black men so they could find careers outside of manual labor or farm work. Douglass sought the support of the famed abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1852, Stowe published the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was enormously popular and shone a fresh light on the atrocities of the slave trade. Douglass met with Stowe at her home in Andover, Massachusetts, to enlist her help in establishing an industrial school to train black artisans. However, the plan for the school was not fully supported by other black leaders, who argued the school would promote segregation. Douglass continued to push for the school until 1855 when lack of funds forced him to abandon the project.

– Portrait of abolitionist John Brown. Brown (1800 – 1859) gained notoriety in 1856 and 1857 fighting in the guerrilla wars against pro-slavery forces in the Kansas Territory.

– Portrait of abolitionist John Brown. Brown (1800 – 1859) gained notoriety in 1856 and 1857 fighting in the guerrilla wars against pro-slavery forces in the Kansas Territory.

John Brown and the Raid on Harpers Ferry

During a trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, in late 1847, Douglass met the hardened abolitionist John Brown. The meeting with Brown made a lasting impression on Douglass, who wrote of it, “Mr. Brown is one of the most earnest and interesting men I have met…[he] is deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” Up until this point, Brown’s anti-slavery stance had just been words; however, he was about to take actions that would forever change the course of American history. In the mid-1850s, Brown was involved in the period known as “Bleeding Kansas,” which was a bloody clash between the pro and anti-slavery forces. The outcome of the bloody tug-of-war would determine if Kansas was admitted to the Union as a slave or free state. While in Kansas, Brown and his sons hacked five pro-slavery men to death in what became known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre.” The murders set off a string of back and forth retaliatory raids with pro-slavery groups that resulted in the deaths of dozens of people. Brown left Kansas in 1856 a wanted man and seasoned guerilla fighter, and traveled north under various aliases seeking support for the “cause.” The paths of Douglass and Brown would cross several times before that fateful day at Harper’s Ferry.

Brown visited Douglass months before he and a small band of loyal followers raided the U.S. Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown’s plan was to use the weapons from the arsenal to arm an army of slaves and free southern blacks from the tyranny of slavery. Brown pleaded with Douglass to join his cause and participate in the raid on the arsenal. Douglass, realizing the plan was a hopeless suicide mission, refused to join Brown and his crusade. Douglass was a man of words and ideals whereas Brown was a man action, even if it ultimately led to his death.

Shortly after the failed Harpers Ferry raid, a letter from Douglass was found by authorities in Brown’s papers. Believing that Douglass was an active conspirator in the raid, an arrest warrant was issued for him. Fearing extradition to Virginia, Douglass made his way to Canada and then onto England and Scotland. There Douglass praised Brown and his men as martyrs. But his visit to Great Britain was cut short when he learned of his daughter’s death. The ten-year-old Annie had been sick for several months and finally succumbed. Deeply affected by the death of his young daughter, he risked imprisonment and returned home to Rochester in April 1860. Once back in the United States, he kept his presence secret until his name was cleared of the charges of conspiracy.

The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment is a bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the Boston Common.

The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment is a bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the Boston Common.

The Civil War

Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was unsuccessful; however, it did much to polarize the nation on the issue of slavery and was a one of the key events leading to the epic battle between the North and the South. When Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, Douglass welcomed the outbreak of war, called for the arming of slaves and free blacks, and wrote that the Union must destroy slavery. Douglass became a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment; the first regiment of black soldiers raised in a northern state. His sons Charles and Lewis joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and by mid-April 1863, Douglass had recruited one hundred black men for the regiment.

During the war, Douglass met with President Lincoln on more than one occasion to discuss how more black men could be incorporated into the army. Lincoln asked him to help devise “the means most desirable to be implied outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel states to come within the federal lines.” Douglass saw in Lincoln “a deeper moral conviction against slavery” than he ever imagined.

President Lincoln freed the slaves in the Confederate states by signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which became effective on the first day of 1863. Douglass hailed the Emancipation Proclamation and predicted that Lincoln would not retreat from his position on the abolishment of slavery. In an address titled “The Slaves’ Appeal to Great Britain,” Douglass urged the British not to recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation. His address was widely printed in British and Irish newspapers.

In late August 1864, President Lincoln once again summoned Douglass to the White House. They discussed the possibility that the war would end with a negotiated peace. Lincoln requested that Douglass form an organization to help the southern slaves escape to the north. Before the plans could be put into place, the war between the states drew to a close with the Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Virginia’s Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.

Reconstruction of America after the Civil War

Though the slaves had won their freedom as a result of the Civil War, there were still many roadblocks for African Americans to become equal citizens with whites. In the South, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and others arose and acted as the militant arm of the Democratic Party. Within a decade after the war, Democrats gained political control of the South and began to instill institutional racism in the laws, which became known as “Jim Crow” laws.

In the post-Civil War era, Douglass’s popularity as a speaker only increased; his schedule was grueling. From the fall of 1868, when he spoke at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, until March of 1869, he delivered at least forty-five lectures in ten states across the northern United States. His fall and winter speaking tour of 1869 and 1870 was no less arduous. The passage by Congress of the fifteenth amendment in 1869, which gave black men the right to vote, was a hotly discussed topic across the nation. During that speaking tour, he gave at least seventy-two lectures as far west as Ohio and through much of the northeastern United States, speaking every day in December except one.

Support for President Ulysses S. Grant

To work for equality of the races, Douglass helped found the New National Era newspaper in 1870. The newspaper became a voice for the African American in the political center of Reconstruction. Douglass supported Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election of 1868, the first election in which black Americans voted in any significant number. Douglass, along with his family, moved to Washington, D.C., to further his growing role in the government. The election of 1872 pitted the incumbent President Grant against the Liberal Republican Party Nominee Horace Greely. Douglass campaigned hard for Grant, making campaign stops in Virginia, North Carolina, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

— Frederick Douglass

The Statesman and Public Servant

When President Grant’s successor won the Republican nomination, Douglass campaigned for him. Once in office, Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass as Marshal of the United States for the District of Columbia. The appointment encountered opposition in the Senate, where pro-slavery sentiment was still high. Douglass was narrowly approved for the position, which he held for four years.

In 1881, President James Garfield appointed Douglass as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. He held the lucrative position through the terms of president James Garfield and Chester Arthur, and was removed from office by President Grover Cleveland in 1886.

President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass as minister resident and consul-general to the republic of Haiti. He worked to help the small island nation build a stable government and society. He served in this capacity until 1889 when he returned to Washington.

Frederick Douglass: From Slave to Presidential Advisor

A Bittersweet Reunion

During the summer of 1877, nearly four decades after Douglass had gained his freedom, he returned to St. Michaels, Talbot County, Maryland. There he met with relatives and his eighty-two-year-old former master Thomas Auld. The meeting was congenial, with Auld now on his deathbed. The encounter brought reconciliation for Douglass and helped give closure to his years as a slave. It had been arranged by Auld’s daughter, Amanda Auld Sears, who was very likely his cousin. Douglass and Amanda had reconnected as adults at a political rally after the war in Philadelphia. Douglass was in the middle of a march and saw Amanda and her two children waving. He broke ranks and ran to Amanda, asking what brought her to Philadelphia. With excitement in her voice, the former slaveholder’s daughter replied, “I heard you were to be here, and I came to see you walk in this procession.”

Helen Pitts Douglass (1838 – 1903), seated, with her husband Frederick Douglass. The standing woman is her sister, Eva Pitts.

Helen Pitts Douglass (1838 – 1903), seated, with her husband Frederick Douglass. The standing woman is her sister, Eva Pitts.

A Controversial Second Wife

In early July of 1882, Anna Douglass suffered a stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed. She was bedridden in a debilitated state for nearly a month before she died on the morning of August 4 at the age of sixty-eight or sixty-nine. Anna’s passing made the newspapers, with the New York Globe portraying Anna as the heroine of the house. As her husband “spent most of his time in campaign battling for the emancipation of the race,” she made certain that “the utmost diligence had been bestowed upon every branch of his domestic affairs.” Frederick and their four children were devastated by the loss of the wife and mother who had been the heart and soul of their family.

After a period of mourning, in 1884, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman who was twenty years his junior. Pitts, the daughter of a colleague of Douglass, was a well-educated woman with a degree from Mount Holyoke College. The marriage caused quite a stir as inter-racial marriages were not common and frowned upon during that era. The marriage not only brought public condemnation but also caused a wave of dissension within their families. Her family stopped speaking to her and his children considered the marriage a repudiation of their mother’s memory. Douglass responded to critics that his first wife “was the color of my mother, and the second, the color of my father.”

Final Days

Always the activist up until his last day on earth, Frederick Douglass was engaged in the business of making America a better place. On February 20, 1895, he gave an address to the meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. He was escorted to the stage by his old friend Susan B. Anthony. After the meeting, he returned to his home, named Cedar Hill, to tell his wife about his day and the meeting. During the conversation with Helen he collapsed to the floor and died of a sudden heart attack. The frantic Helen ran to the door and screamed for help. In short order a doctor arrived to pronounce the fallen leader dead. The man who had written and spoken a million words now fell silent. The next day the US Senate adjourned for the day out of respect.

The funeral was held on February 25 at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. Thousands of mourners viewed his body at the church. The funeral was attended by Washington’s elite, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, Senator John Sherman, and the faculty of Howard University. Susan B. Anthony was one of the speakers at the service. The next day his body was transported to Rochester, New York, where he had lived the longest. On the day of his burial, all business and the upper grades of the schools were suspended in Rochester. The New York Tribune reported a “surging mass of people” surrounded the church and the streets during the three-hour public viewing.

Newspapers from all over the country poured forth eulogies of the fallen leader. The New York Tribune told its readers that Douglass “became the representative man of his race…by virtue of self-help…[and] self-education.” The passing of the icon inspired editors with lofty language in both the North and the South. The paper in Springfield, Illinois, declared the “world’s greatest negro” had died. A southern paper in Virginia reported the “greatest man of African descent this century has seen” passed on. Black communities across the country held meetings of tribute to Douglass.

He was buried next to his wife Anna and his daughter Annie in the Douglass family plot of Mount Hope Cemetery. Helen joined him in death in 1903.


  • Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass Prophet of Freedom. Simon & Schuster. 2018.
  • Chesnutt, Charles and Doug West (Editor). Frederick Douglass: Illustrated and Annotated Edition. C&D Publications. 2019.
  • Douglass, Frederick and Theodore Hamm (Editor). Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn. Akashic Books. 2017.
  • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Library of America Paperback Classics. 2014.

© 2019 Doug West


Doug West (author) from Missouri on September 16, 2019:


Thanks for the comment. Frederick Douglass had many good qualities was can all learn from.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on September 15, 2019:

Wonderful article, Doug. Excellent stories about a man who was certainly a strong voice for our nation when we needed strength in some of our weakest moments. I like the fact that he found peace with the master as he was dying; Douglas reminds us to be forgiving, even when we are not treated the best. You are a skilled writer of our history as a nation, and our history as humans. Respect and admiration.

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