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Black History Month Remembers: Frederick Douglass

To this day, the life of Frederick Douglas continues to inspire people to follow their dreams, make a difference in the world, and look at every person without prejudice. At an early age, he learned the harsh realities of slavery as well as the opportunities that learning could provide. Until the end of his life, he continued to speak out for people that, at the time, were considered less than by others. His speeches, books, newspaper, and even his life were all a way to give a voice to those that were not seen as equal. His endurance and dedication led to major changes in the lives of millions of people. He left a legacy that continues to affect people of all ages, gender, and color.

Douglass was born in 1818, but never knew the actual day he entered the world. Later, he adopted February 14 as his birthday. His mother, Harriet Baily, was a slave on Holmes Hill Farm and there were rumors suggesting that his father, Aaron Anthony, was the owner of the estate. Douglass was moved to live with his grandmother and rarely saw his mother. By the age of six he was completely separated from his mother and grandmother. He moved several times until he eventually ended up at the home of Hugh Auld. It was under the care of Auld that an opportunity opened up and changed his life forever.

Auld’s wife, Sophia, often read the Bible aloud. Douglass requested that she teach him how to read. He was a fast learner and began to pick the information up quickly, including some writing. The lessons stopped when Hugh Auld realized what his wife was doing. He insisted that the lessons stop because if a slave knew how to read and write, he would want to be free. The idea resonated with Douglass. He realized that learning and knowledge would be his pathway to freedom. He continued to absorb information and started to teach those around him as well. This did not sit well with many of the slave owners.

Douglass unsuccessfully tried to escape a few times but was finally successful on September 3, 1838. With the help of Anna Murray, he arrived in New York. Days later they were married and created a home together. People encouraged him to speak about his experiences and at 23 years old, he gave his first speech. He explained the things he had gone through and his experience as a slave. For the rest of his life, he would continue to speak about his experiences, as well as his hopes for the equality of all people. His words were well-spoken and immediately moved to the front lines of the abolitionist movement.

He published three autobiographies, the first being Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). He also wrote, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). After returning from a two year tour of Ireland and Great Britain, he came back the US and used the funds raised by others to buy his freedom. At the same time, he started up an antislavery newspaper that would continue to run for thirteen years.

During the Civil War he was an outspoken consultant to President Lincoln. He pushed for blacks to be allowed to fight for, what he considered to be, their freedom. Douglass saw the war as a way to make a statement about slavery and its legality. During the Reconstruction, he continued to work for the civil rights of everyone, including women. He took up the cause of the women’s suffrage movement, speaking out about their desire to vote. At the Ladies of the Rochester Antislavery Sewing Society, he gave a speech that would later be known as, What to the Slave is the 4th of July? 

The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865 and slavery was officially abolished. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, ensuring that rights of the citizenship were protected. Finally, the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, was adopted in 1870. Unfortunately, this did not mean that in everyday life, all things were fair and equal. Even while filling the position of the Marshall of the District of Columbia and the US minister and consul general to Haiti, there were times when was still harassed and mistreated. He never swayed in his commitment to the cause of equality.

At the age of 77, a massive heart attack claimed the life of Frederick Douglass. His legacy continues to live on as his name has become synonymous with the ideas of freedom, equality, and education. Today, everything from scholarships to schools, book awards and commendations are named for a man who changed the course of history. In Cedar Hill, a National Historical Site has been dedicated to Douglass. Seminars, speeches, and books continue to celebrate the life of a man who saw all men and women as equals, deserving of the same rights.

To learn more about Frederick Douglass, consult the following links:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: This was Douglass’ first autobiography. The book is transcribed and includes a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and one by Wendell Phillips.

Frederick Douglass in His Own Words: As part of the American Memory online collection, the book, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, is scanned and available to read.

What to the Slave is the 4th of July?: The speech itself is transcribed along with an explanation of the context. The speech was given by Douglass to the Ladies of the Rochester Antislavery Sewing Society on July 5, 1852.

National Historical Site in the District of Columbia: Douglass’ home in Cedar Hill is on display, including his personal library. While it is impossible to get up close and take a look at the titles, there is a list of all books and booklets, including his diary from 1871.

America’s Story from America’s Library: Frederick Douglass, an Amazing American: Along with basic information about the life of Douglass, there are several links to more specific information about his life as a slave, his role as an abolitionist leader, and his role in the Civil War.

Petition for Women’s Suffrage Signed by Frederick Douglass: He stood up for every person that needed a voice and was a key part of the women’s suffrage movement. This page includes a scan of the document as well as some background information on the women’s suffrage movement.

Six Letters Written by Frederick Douglass: The letters were written to Miss Hannah Fuller, and organizer for a local antislavery society. He speaks about his speaking engagements and updates her on some of the antislavery activities taking place in New York.

Who was Frederick Douglass?: Included is a detailed biography of Douglass along with some pictures. Pictures of some of his associates are also included,

A List of All Known Correspondence by Frederick Douglass: Beginning in 1842, all known letters by Frederick Douglass are listed with details about the date and the people to whom they were addressed.

Perspectives in American Literature: Frederick Douglass: A brief biography, links to his works and discussion questions for a group setting are included. 

A Comprehensive Biography of Frederick Douglass: Written by Sandra Thomas, the biography is separated into various stages of his life.

Western New York Suffragists: A listing on Douglass that includes important biographical information as well as pictures, excerpts from his writings, and an explanation on his role in the women’s suffrage movement.

A Timeline of the LIfe of Frederick Douglass: Includes a complete timeline along with photos of Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass. A scanned copy of the North Star, an an antislavery publication by Douglass.

The Legacy of Frederick Douglass Today: The Frederick Douglas Institute at West Chester University was created for the advancement of multicultural studies. Includes several ways in which Douglass’ is remembered and celebrated on campus.

The Frederick Douglass Book Prize: Information on the prize itself as well as a list of winners starting in 1999.

Frederick Douglas Seminars on Race Relations and Gender Equity: Another celebration of Douglass’ legacy, this organization speaks to students about the importance of education and equality. Fred Morsell brings Douglass to life with his acting and his message.

Frederick Douglas by Robert Hayden: A poem about Douglass with a link to the context and meaning behind the words.

The Heroic Slave: This novella, by Douglass, is transcribed, as well as an explanation on the symbolism and images used.

Frederick Douglass, Scotland, and the South: An analysis of Douglass and the many different ways he was seen by others in Scotland. (in .PDF form)

Frederick Douglass Speech in Chicago: A lecture given by Douglass, on Haiti, at the World’s Fair in 1893. From 1891 to 1893, he was the country’s US Minster and general consul.