Frederick Douglass was a man who continually reinvented himself and would, in time, create the modern American civil rights movement and reshape American politics.
The son of a slave woman and an unknown white man, “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” was born in February of 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven. While growing up, he was witnessed the degradations of slavery, seeing firsthand brutal whippings and spending much time cold and hungry. At the age of eight he was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. It was there he learned to read and first heard the words abolition and abolitionists. “Going to live at Baltimore,” Douglass would later recall, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”
Douglass enjoyed seven relatively comfortable years in Baltimore before being sent back to the country, where he was hired out to a farm run by a notoriously brutal “slavebreaker” named Edward Covey. And the treatment he received was indeed brutal. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.” These events were to propel him to become an activist against slavery.
Frederick Douglass – Mini Bio
On January 1, 1836, he resolved that he would be free by the end of the year. He planned an escape. But early in April he was jailed after his plan was discovered. Two years later, while living in Baltimore and working at a shipyard, Douglass would finally realize his dream: he fled the city on September 3, 1838. Traveling by train, then steamboat, then train, he arrived in New York City the following day. Several weeks later he had settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name, Frederick Douglass.
Douglass continued to educate himself and was an avid reader. In New Bedford, he attended Abolitionists’ meetings and subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal, the Liberator. After meeting Garrison in 1841, Douglass was mentioned in the Liberator and a few days later gave a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. It was reported that, “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence.” Douglass became a lecturer for the Society for three years and his career as a speaker was launched.
Douglass was also an author and publisher. In 1945, despite fears that the information might endanger his freedom, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself. Three years later, after a speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a four-page weekly, out of Rochester, New York.
During the Civil War, he conferred with Abraham Lincoln and helped the Union Army recruit northern blacks to fight in the conflict. Later he would go on to serve as U.S. minister to Haiti.
During his long life, he fought for the right not only of African Americans, but women and other oppressed minorities. Through his writing, speaking and political activities, he helped establish the modern American civil rights movement. He had an enduring vision of America achieving justice and equal rights for all its citizens. But first and foremost, he had a continually evolving vision of himself as someone who, despite his early years as a slave, deserved the freedom, dignity and respect he fought so diligently to obtain for others.