Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slaveFrederick Douglass
President Donald Trump kicked off Black History Month with a speech in which he didn’t seem to know that the famous abolitionist has been dead for more than a century. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Whether Trump used the wrong verb tense or didn’t understand that Douglass is dead is unknown. But considering February is Black History Month, and this confusion of history is exactly what DHISRUPT has been created to clear up, I thought it fitting that Douglass is our first post.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in Maryland in February 1818. He later took the surname Douglass. Like many slaves, his exact birth date is unknown. Record-keeping for slave births (and deaths) wasn’t deemed necessary. Douglass was biracial; his mother, Harriet Bailey, was black and his father unknown. It was alleged that his father was his master Aaron Anthony of Holmes Hill farm, Douglass’ home for the first seven years of his life. He barely knew his mother, having been taken from her at a very young age. This was common practice with childbearing women, who were more productive on the field than older women. His mother was moved to another plantation about twelve miles away. Douglass saw her only four or five times during his early life. She died when he was ten years old. In his later autobiography, Douglass suggested that slave owners purposefully separated children from their parents in order to sever the growth of affection between them. There is a lot of scholarship on this. Here are just a few books:
Douglass then lived with his maternal grandmother until age seven, but was separated from her as well when he was moved to another plantation. Within a year, he was moved, yet again, to the home of the Auld family in Baltimore.
Auld’s wife began to teach Douglass the alphabet but was rebuked by her husband. Auld argued his disapproval of educating slaves, not only because it was against the law, but also because he believed that education only encouraged the slave to value freedom. Douglass overheard their argument and later said it was the “first decidedly antislavery lecture” he had ever heard. He continued to teach himself to read and write in secrecy, offering poor white neighborhood children bread in exchange for teaching him. His teenage years were spent in several different homes and plantations where he was beaten and abused. He taught other slaves to read and write until slave owners ended these activities with clubs and stones. You can read more about these years by reading his autobiographies. He wrote three!
In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with a free black woman in Baltimore named Anna Murray. Her free status emboldened him to gain his own freedom. He boarded a train in Baltimore dressed in a sailor’s uniform with cash from Anna’s savings. Anna is often overlooked when discussing Douglass, but her life is just as amazing and interesting. You can learn more about Anna Murray here:
Douglass left Baltimore and arrived in the free city of Philadelphia by a circuitous route of trains and ferries to avoid detection. He went from slavery to freedom in just 24 hours. He later wrote, “I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe”. But being in a free city did not legally make him a free man. More on this later.
Douglass traveled north to New York and sent for Anna where they were married on September 15, 1838. They eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He became a licensed preacher in 1839 and began his lifelong work in the abolitionist movement. His best-known work is his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845. You can imagine how this title would have enticed readers at the time! Skeptics couldn’t believe such eloquent writing could be achieved by a black man. But the book received positive reviews and became a best-seller. It was reprinted nine times in the U.S. and published in Europe in several languages. This notoriety raised fears that his former master, Thomas Auld, would try to take back his property. Yes, Douglass was still legally the “property” of the Auld family.
With the money earned from the sale of the book, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Britain and remained there for nearly two years. He gave lectures and met with important leaders and abolitionists. It was in England that Douglass legally became a free man. British abolitionists raised the funds to buy his freedom from his American owner. They tried to entice him to stay in England, but he returned to America to work towards the ending of slavery.
“Justice must be done, the truth must be told…I will not be silent”
Douglass published his first abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester, New York and in September 1848 he published an open letter to his former master, Thomas Auld, berating him for his conduct. Douglass boldly asks Auld how he would feel if his daughter was enslaved. “How, let me ask, would you look upon me, were I some dark night in company with a band of hardened villains, to enter the precincts of your elegant dwelling and seize the person of your own lovely daughter Amanda, and carry her off from your family, friends and all the loved ones of her youth—make her my slave—compel her to work, and I take her wages—place her name on my ledger as property—disregard her personal rights-—fetter the powers of her immortal soul by denying her the right and privilege of learning to read and write—feed her coarsely—clothe her scantily, and whip her on the naked back occasionally; more and still more horrible, leave her unprotected—a degraded victim to the brutal lust of fiendish overseers, who would pollute, blight, and blast her fair soul—rob her of all dignity—destroy her virtue, and annihilate all in her person the graces that adorn the character of virtuous womanhood?” You can imagine how this letter went down with white people, especially slave owners! But Douglass wrote this illustration of slavery in great detail to provide a representation of its cruelty and inhumanity to people who may not know the extent of the vicious treatment slaves endured. Depicting a white woman in this oppression served to humanize the cruelty on a personal level to those who saw the black body as less than human.
Frederick Douglass dedicated his life to the emancipation of slaves. He also supported women’s rights and called for school desegregation. He was one of the most famous black men in America and traveled the country giving speeches to huge crowds. He rubbed shoulders with Presidents, statesman, and religious leaders. He even received a vote for President of the United States at the 1888 Republican National Convention.
So, yes, as Donald Trump said, Douglass had “done an amazing job” and thanks to the President’s confusing statement, we at DHISRUPT are happy to help to ensure that Douglass “is being recognized more and more.” This short biography is simply an introduction to Douglass. Read more about this amazing American hero, learn history, and share with friends.