As far as I'm concerned anybody who survives slavery is an inspirational person, but Frederick Douglass is no ordinary slavery survivor. Born as a slave in February 1818 (he never knew his birthday or actual age), Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became one of the most influential African Americans of his time.
Born as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Talbot, Maryland, Douglass had a typical and brutal existence as a slave. It is believed that his father was his slave master and he never saw his mother in the light of day as their only contact was when she would confort him before his sleep. During slavery most children were separated from their mothers at an early age and for Frederick Douglass it was no different. He was sent to live with his maternal grandmother until age 7 when he was moved again to Baltimore to be slave to an overseer named Arron Anthony and then to the Auld family. It was with the Auld family where Frederick began to learn to read with the help of Thomas Auld's wife Lucretia.
Douglass continued teaching himself to read and learned quickly that "knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom." He became an avid reader and even began teaching other blacks to read at a weekly Sunday school. The popularity of his classes grew quickly among the slaves, but of course there were serious repercussions once the other plantation owners found out that Douglass was educating Negroes. He and the other slaves were beaten and the courses stopped.
This beating and the other mistreatment of slavery did nothing to quell Douglass' thirst for knowledge and he kept reading and educating himself feverishly. He also worked on his escape and after 2 failed attempts in 1836 and 1837 Douglass managed to escape to New York with the help of his then girlfriend and future wife Anna Murray and a network of abolitionists and supporters.
His incredible vocabulary and newly developed writing skills served him well during his freedom as he spoke to countless blacks and white abolitionists about the conditions of slavery and the fight for freedom. He not only recounted his experiences as a slave, but also spoke eloquently about the rights for equality of all Americans to include recent immigrants, Native Americans and women (who at that time did not have the right to vote). Douglass' oratory talents took him overseas where he spent time in Ireland and England speaking about his experiences in America.
After a two-year hiatus in Ireland and England (where he became legally free), Douglass returned to America in 1847 where he continued to be an extremely influential abolitionist, writer and orator. The success of his first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (published in 1845) brought success and notoriety to Douglass and distinguished him as an expert speaker on the ills of slavery from the perspective of an ex-slave. Douglass subsequently had the ear of many of the famous abolitionists and politicians of the day to include Abraham Lincoln, and was extremely influential in forming public opinion and policy regarding activities prior to the war, during the Civil War and during Reconstruction.
Douglass continued to write, publishing 2 more autobiographies along with multiple newsletters and papers of the day. He held several public offices and distinguished himself as one of the most important and prominent African American leaders of his time.
5 Things You May Not Know About Frederick Douglass
1. After several beatings by his slave master Edward Covey (who received Douglass from Thomas Auld with the express purpose of "breaking him"), Frederick Douglass rose up and successfully fought and beat up Covey. After losing this physical altercation Covey never beat the 16 year old Douglass again.
2. Frederick Douglass was the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull (1872).
3. Frederick Douglass toured Ireland in 1845, an activity common among freed slaves of the time. In Ireland blacks of the time were free from racism and prejudice.
4. Frederick Douglass was a man of many talents, one of which ws development. In 1890 he was responsible for the construction of residential housing for Blacks in Falls Point Maryland called Douglas Place. The housing complex still exists today and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
5. Before he died Frederick Douglass reconciled with his former slave master Thomas Auld.
Frederick Douglass believed and fought for the rights of ALL people. Certainly Douglass could have been consumed full time with the fight for blacks in America, but his scpe remained broad to include equality for all to include recent immigrants, Native Americans, and women.
As a free man Frederick Douglass continued to look back to help others. No one could fault any former slave for going quietly into the night to live in relative peace as a free man. Frederick Douglass did not do this however as, after living abroad in Ireland and England as a free man removed from prejudice, he returned to America in 1847 to continue his life work of the struggle for freedom for all. His fight for freedom and equality continued unabated until his death in 1895.
Against all odds Frederick Douglass strove for education and always understood it as a key to freedom. In a time when a black man could be killed for learning to read, Frederick Douglass not only learned to read but became one of the greatest writers and orators of his time. He continues to serve as an example that anyone wanting an education can get one if they are willing to strive for it and pay the price for it.
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”- Frederick Douglass
To read more from Frederick Douglass check out The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
An absolute must read for anyone wanting to deepen their understanding of American history and the African American experience of slavery.
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