Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey Douglass
Proud Black, Republican & Champion of Civil Rights
February 14, 1818 to February 20, 1895
“Honoring the Father of the American Civil Rights Movement”
From the outbreak of the Civil War until his death, Douglass was generally recognized as the premier Black American leader and spokesman for his people. Douglass writing was devoted primarily to the creation of a heroic image of himself that would inspire in African Americans the belief that one’s color need not be a permanent bar to their achievement of the American dream, while reminding whites of their obligation as Americans to support free and equal access to that dream for Americans of all races.
The man who became internationally famous as Frederick Douglass was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in February 1818, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unknown white man. Although he recalls witnessing, as a child, the bloody whipping of his Aunt Hester by his master, Douglass says in his autobiographies that his early experience of slavery was characterized less by overt cruelty than by deprivations of food, clothing, and emotional contact with his mother and grandmother. Sent to Baltimore in 1826 by his master’s son-in-law, Thomas Auld, Frederick spent five years as a servant in the home of Thomas Auld’s brother, Hugh. At first, Hugh’s wife Sophia treated the slave boy with unusual kindness, giving reading lessons to Frederick until her husband forbade them. Rather than accept Hugh Auld’s dictates, Frederick took his first rebellious steps toward freedom by teaching himself to read and write.
In 1833, a quarrel between the Auld brothers brought Frederick back to his home in Saint Michaels, Maryland. Tensions between the recalcitrant black youth and his owner convinced Thomas Auld to hire Frederick out as a farm worker under the supervision of Edward Covey, a local slave breaker. In the spring of 1836, after a failed attempt to escape from slavery, Frederick was sent back to Baltimore to learn the caulking trade. With the aid of his future spouse, Anna Murray, and masquerading as a free black merchant sailor, he boarded a northbound train out of Baltimore on 3 September 1838 and arrived in New York City the next day. Before a month had passed Frederick and Anna were reunited, married, and living in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass, the new last name recommended by a friend in New Bedford’s thriving Black American community. Less than three years later, Douglass joined the radical Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement as a full-time lecturer.
After years of honing his rhetorical skills on the antislavery platform, Douglass put his life’s story into print in 1845. The result, Narrative of the “Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” written by himself, sold more than thirty thousand copies in the first five years of its existence. After a triumphal 21 month lecture tour in England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass returned to the United States in the spring of 1847, resolved, against the advice of many of his Garrisonian associates, to launch his own newspaper, the North Star. Authoring most of the articles and editorials himself, Douglass kept the North Star and its successors, Frederick Douglass’s Paper and Frederick Douglass’s Monthly, in print from 1847 to 1863.
One of the literary highlights of the newspaper was a novella, “The Heroic Slave,” which Douglass wrote in March 1853. Based on an actual slave mutiny, it is regarded as the first work of long fiction in African American literature. A rupture of the close relationship between Douglass and Garrison occasioned a period of reflection and reassessment that culminated in Douglass’s second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855). Although he had befriended and advised John Brown in the late 1850s, Douglass declined Brown’s invitation to participate in the Harpers Ferry raid but was forced to flee his Rochester, New York, home for Canada in October 1859 after he was publicly linked to Brown. Applauding the election of Abraham Lincoln and welcoming the Civil War as a final means of ending slavery, Douglass lobbied the new president in favor of African American recruitment for the Union Army. When the war ended, Douglass pleaded with President Andrew Johnson for a national voting rights act that would give Black Americans the franchise in all the states. Douglass’s loyalty to the Republican Party, whose candidates he supported throughout his later years, won him appointment to the highest political offices that any Black American from the North had ever won: federal marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, president of the Freedman’s Bureau Bank, consul to Haiti, and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic.
The income Douglass earned from these positions, coupled with the fees he received for his popular lectures, most notably one entitled “Self-Made Men,” and his investments in real estate, allowed Douglass and his family to live in comfort in Uniontown, just outside Washington, D.C. during the last two decades of his life. His final memoir, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” first published in 1881 and expanded in 1892, did not excite the admiration of reviewers or sell widely, as had his first two autobiographies. But the Life and Times maintained Douglass’s conviction that his had been a “life of victory, if not complete, at least assured.” Life and Times shows Douglass dedicated to the ideal of building a racially integrated America, in which skin color would cease to determine an individual’s social value and economic options.
In the last months of his life, Douglass decried the increasing incidence of lynching in the South and disputed the notion that by disenfranchising the Black American man a more peaceful social climate would prevail throughout the nation. Yet, Douglass never forsook his long-standing belief that the U.S. Constitution, if strictly and equally enforced, remained the best safeguard for Black American civil and human rights.