Frederick Douglass: The Wordsmith for Freedom
Frederick Douglass is a name you’ll be hearing quite often this year, as this month marks 200 years since his birth. Since he was born into slavery in Talbot County (approximately 40 miles east of Annapolis on the Eastern Shore), his actual birth date is unknown, but he would later claim February 14 to celebrate.
Douglass rose high above the odds in his 77 years, beginning life as a slave considered “property”, to later becoming one of the single most important figures of the abolitionist movement. His writings and orations were living testimony that African Americans could far exceed the limits enslavement had placed upon them.
Frederick Douglass’ trajectory in life took a defining shift at the age of 12, when Sophia Auld, the wife of a slaveholder, taught him the alphabet. Her husband Hugh Auld forbade her from further teaching, but the spark for knowledge had been lit within Frederick and he sought education where he could– mostly from white children in the neighborhood. After learning to read, he found insight in the newspapers and political essays that would help define his beliefs on human rights. Douglass was later called upon by presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson to advise on such matters as treatment of black servicemen and black suffrage.
While still enslaved, Douglass shared his knowledge with other slaves on the plantation, teaching over 40 slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly service. This came to an end when slave owners violently disrupting the congregation.
Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman, who was responsible for helping him escape to freedom. With some of Murray’s savings, a sailor’s uniform, and the identification papers of a free black seaman, Douglass successfully escaped slavery September 3, 1838 upon boarding a train from Baltimore, Maryland to New York, where he found refuge at an abolitionist safe house. Douglass and Anna Murray settled into a thriving black community in New Bedford, Massachusetts where they had five children: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Redmond, and Annie who passed away at 10 years old. Charles and Rosetta would later help Douglass produce his newspaper, The North Star.
After publishing his first autobiography in 1845 – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave – he spent two years in Ireland and Britain to speak of the horrors of slavery and to avoid being recaptured. His freedom was purchased with funds raised by supporters touched by his brilliance. He was able to return to the U.S. in 1847, legally a free man.
After Anna’s passing, Frederick married Helen Pitts – a white feminist who was nearly 20 years younger. The unlikely pairing for the time stirred controversy, and was especially disapproved of by his children. They remained married until Douglass’s death on February 20, 1895.
Frederick Douglass certainly endured a great deal of risk and challenge in his lifetime; escaping slavery and, despite being met with violence or imprisonment, speaking fearlessly to dismantle it. Douglass utilized his talent for words to provide a unique perspective during a grim period in American History; words we continue to reflect upon today.
Experience the life of Frederick Douglass through these opportunities in Annapolis & Anne Arundel County throughout 2018 during his Bicentennial Celebration.
More on Frederick Douglass:
- He is the first African American to appear on a ballot as a nominee for Vice President. Douglass did not campaign, however; not knowing of, or consenting to, the nomination.
- Douglass was an advocate at the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York alongside famous suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
- Despite criticism, Frederick Douglass reconciled with his former owner Thomas Auld in 1877.
Illustration by Lindsay Bolin Lowery, LBoCraft.com.
Reference: Frederick Douglass Biography, biography.com