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Frederick Douglass
(February 1818 – February 20, 1895)
 
Frederick Douglass was a former slave turned abolitionist, civil rights advocate, journalist, public speaker, government official, and the most influential black American in the nineteenth century. 

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February 1818 (day unknown) near Easton on the eastern shore of Maryland.  His mother was Harriet Bailey, a slave, and his father was a white man whose identity is unknown.  The place of his birth, Holmes Hill Farm, was owned by Aaron Anthony, overseer of the estate of Edward Lloyd, who owned Frederick and his family.  The boy rarely saw his mother because she worked long hours in the cornfields and he spent his early years being raised by his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey.  At the age of six, he was taken from his grandmother to join his other siblings on the main Lloyd plantation.  In 1826, he was sent to the Baltimore household of Hugh and Sophia Auld; his new mistress was a daughter of Aaron Anthony.  Although teaching slaves to read was illegal, Douglass secretly became literate and read discarded newspapers to learn about the slavery controversy.  He developed public speaking skills from the example of black preachers and a book on public oratory.   

In 1833, Douglass was sent to a new Auld plantation outside St. Michaels, Maryland, near the Lloyd homestead.  He was soon caught teaching other slaves to read, and was then punished by being placed under a “slave breaker.”  His continued defiance led to his being hired out to another farm, where he also started a clandestine school for slaves.  In 1836, when the planned escape of Douglass and his students was discovered, he was returned to Baltimore and rented to work as a caulker in a shipyard.  He joined an educational society founded by free blacks at which he honed his debating ability and met a free black woman, Anna Murray, to whom he became engaged.  In September 1838, Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore to freedom in New York City by dressing as a sailor and carrying papers identifying him as a free black.  Two weeks later, he and Anna Murray married; the couple later had five children.   

Soon after their marriage, the Douglass and his wife moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he worked at a shipyard and became a lay minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.  He changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass to make it more difficult for slave-catchers to find him.  He began attending antislavery meetings and reading William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, which became his “meat and drink.  My soul was set on fire.”  In August 1841, Douglass’s remarks before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society so impressed Garrison and other white abolitionists that they hired him to lecture on the evils of slavery.  He gave hundreds of speeches throughout the Northeast over the next two years, and then joined other abolitionists in 1843 on a speaking tour from western New York to Indiana.  Because he was so articulate, some questioned whether he had been a slave.  Partly to refute such skepticism, he wrote the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1845).  It sold well in the United States and Britain and was translated into Dutch, French, and German.

With Douglass’s new renown, however, came fear of being targeted by slave-catchers.  Therefore, in August 1845, he left on a 20-month lecture tour in the United Kingdom.  British abolitionists raised money to purchase his freedom in December 1846, and he returned to the United States in the spring of 1847.  That December, Douglass and his family moved to Rochester, New York, where he began publishing a weekly newspaper, North Star, in which he endorsed abolitionism, black civil rights, women’s rights, temperance, and other reforms.  His philosophy evolved from Garrison’s apolitical moral appeal to the belief that political engagement and possibly violence were needed to end slavery.  In 1848, Douglass endorsed the Free Soil Party.  Three years later, he combined North Star with the organ of the Liberty Party to publish Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which promoted working within the political system to end slavery.  At that point, the Garrisonians broke with Douglass, vilifying their former colleague.

Douglass began openly welcoming slave revolts in the late 1840s and encouraged resistance to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, lawfully when possible, violently when necessary.  During the 1850s, his home in Rochester served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.  In 1852, he published a novella, The Heroic Slave, in which the main character led a violent slave uprising.  In 1859, he reduced the frequently of his newspaper’s publication and changed its name to the Douglass’ Monthly.  That year, he also surreptitiously helped raise money for John Brown’s plan to assist escaping slaves by providing them with armed defense.  When Brown decided, instead, to raid the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia), Douglass objected.  After Brown and his accomplices were arrested, Douglass fled to Canada and then England.  He returned to the United States in 1860 after receiving word that one of his daughters, Annie, had died.

As he had done in 1856, Douglass endorsed the Republican Party in 1860.  When the Civil War began the next year, Douglass urged the Union to abolish slavery and enlist black men.  In January 1863, he lent vocal support to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  That March, Douglass helped recruit one of the first black regiments, the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry.  In expectation of a military commission to recruit and establish Union regiments of ex-slaves, he stopped publication of Douglass’ Monthly with the August 1863 issue.  When the War Department did not award him the promised commission, Douglass continued recruiting blacks in the North and lecturing in support of the Union cause.  He was dissatisfied, however, with discrimination faced by black soldiers and what he considered to be the slow pace of the Lincoln administration on abolition and black civil rights.  Douglass was initially sympathetic to the presidential campaign of radical John C. Fremont in 1864, but finally endorsed Lincoln for reelection.

After the war, Douglass spoke out for ratification of the Thirteenth (1865) and Fourteenth Amendments (1868).  He emphasized the need for black manhood suffrage as a key to protecting and advancing black civil rights and, therefore, worked diligently for congressional passage and state ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870).

In 1870, Douglass purchased the New National Era, a newspaper in Washington, D.C., where he moved his family two years later after a fire destroyed their home in Rochester.  In 1874, financial problems intensified by a national economic depression forced the closing of his newspaper and of the Freedman’s Savings Bank of which he had recently become president.  He also faced mounting criticism from other black leaders over his allegiance to the Republican Party despite its retreat from Reconstruction.  However, he continued to press Republicans on issues of civil rights and racial equality, while endorsing the party’s candidates.  He received federal patronage positions from Republican Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes—U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia (1877-1881), James Garfield—recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (1881-1886), and Benjamin Harrison—U.S. minister to Haiti (1889-1891). 

In 1882, Douglass’s wife, Anna, died, and two years later, he married Helen Pitts, his white ex-secretary.  Some white and black commentators reacted adversely to the racially mixed marriage, but it did not noticeably undermine his influence.  In the 1890s, he spoke out against segregation, disfranchisement, and violence against blacks in the South, and lobbied strenuously for a federal anti-lynching law.  Frederick Douglass died at his home in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895, after returning from a lecture tour that focused on the horrors of lynching.


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