Frederick Douglass was another straight up badass. When you look at his life on paper, it is impressive- rising from slavery to famous orator and abolitionist. However, in reading Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman (if you haven’t read it, go now), it struck me as it struck the author exactly what a feat that was. The bare bones of it are amazing, but the details truly show what this man accomplished.
Born as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey had a tough time from the start. He never knew his father, who was rumored to be the master of the plantation. He spent little time with his mother as it was common practice to separate slave mothers and children to make them easier to sell. In fact, Frederick’s mother lived on a completely different plantation. Even Frederick himself was not sure of his birth year as slaves were not taught the years or months of the calendar. He estimated his birth sometime in February 1818. By the time he was eight years old his mother had died, and his master hired him out to work as a body servant in Baltimore at the house of Hugh Auld. Sophia Auld, Hugh’s wife, recognized that Frederick was bright and began teaching him the letters of the alphabet even though this was illegal under Maryland state law. Their lessons were discovered and Sophia was strongly admonished that educating a slave would “ruin him” as he would become dissatisfied with his lot in life and desire something better like freedom. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Slave masters thought they had to make sure to keep those in it ignorant because otherwise they might figure out there was a better life. There are so many problems with that statement I don’t know where to start. That hurt my brain and my heart.
However, Frederick did not lose his desire for education and took any opportunity to learn more. Auld sent young Frederick out to work at the Baltimore wharf, specifically Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard. He noticed that each piece completed by the ship carpenters had two letters written on them to designate where it went. For example, “S” for starboard side, “L” for larboard side, “F” for forward and “A” for aft. He copied these letters until he had them perfectly memorized, and those were his first four letters. Frederick saved hunks of bread and would trade them to neighborhood white boys for impromptu writing lessons. He said “my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.” He
also would spend any free time he could copying the writing lessons of the Auld’s son Thomas until he could write a similar hand to the young man. All of this was an amazing risk as if he was caught, Frederick would have been whipped or possibly killed. When he was twelve, he bought the book The Columbian Orator, which contained revolutionary speeches, debates and writings. Those have to have been an amazing eye opener to the young man.
Frederick was sent by Auld to work for a shipbuilder named William Gardner. He worked as a caulker, ensuring the ship’s hull was water tight. He was well paid for his labor, but was forced to turn over all of his salary to Hugh Auld every week. Frederick wrote later, “…Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.” The boats he worked on were free, but he, a living man, was not.
When Frederick was fifteen, the was sent back to the Eastern Shore to labor as a field hand. He was hired out to a notorious “slave breaker” named Edward Covey. This guy was a straight up villain, who took any excuse he could to beat the living daylights out of young Frederick. Probably because he knew Frederick was ten times the man he was and hundred times smarter. That’s my penny’s worth of pop psychology for the day. Anyway, he did everything he could to make Frederick fail so he could punish him- whipping him with sticks until they break over Frederick’s back. He was whipped so often that the wounds from his previous beatings did not have time to heal before the next one. This was purely meant to break Frederick’s will and after six months of this treatment it began to work. In his biography, Frederick described sitting like a zombie during church services on Sunday and generally being in a “beast-like stupor”. Frederick even got so desperate he walks seven miles to appeal to his old master. No dice. He actually praised Covey as a good manager and sent Frederick back. Both you and I know this is not going to go well. Covey tried to whip Frederick and Frederick does the unthinkable. He fought back. The two went at it hammer and tongs for two hours, and eventually Covey gives up. Unbelievably, nothing else happened. Frederick hypothesized that Covey doesn’t want to lose face by admitting a slave fought him. Maybe he was scared of another butt kicking. Who knows, but he left Frederick alone after that. After that epiphany, Frederick was not long for slavery.
In 1838, he made a break for it getting on a train dressed in the uniform and identification of a free black seaman, Frederick makes it to New York City. From there he was able to bring his fiancee, a young blank woman named Anna Murray, to New York and they were married. Frederick declared himself free, and the two adopted the new name of Douglass. The moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts and had five children together. He looked for work as a ship’s caulker, but could not find work due to prejudice. Not giving up, he took whatever work he could find as a day laborer. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty doing whatever was needed to get the means to provide for himself and his family. He also joined the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, and became a sexton as well as an licensed preacher. It was his sermons which brought him to the attention of other prestigious parishioners such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. They thought he would make a great addition to the abolitionist movement.
It seems the pro-slavery movement was right to fear men like Frederick as the Abolitionists found a potent weapon in his life experiences and the eloquence in which he could express them. He got a job with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and went on speaking tours across the North and Midwest. His skill as an orator brought the ugliness of slavery home to his audience in a way in which others could not. He wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, in response to accusations that he could not be a fugitive slave because he was too eloquent. Because all black people had to be ignorant and simple minded. Ugh. This in itself was extremely dangerous as now his former masters knew his new name and where he was. Frederick and his family escaped to overseas and traveled throughout England, Ireland and Scotland. While there, he met many abolitionists and one offered to pay for his freedom. On December 5, 1846, Mary Richardson, a quaker from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, bought one Frederick Douglass from Hugh Auld of Baltimore for $711.66. He was then manumitted for 125 pounds sterling. Frederick Douglass was a free man on paper and could return home.
The Douglass family relocated to Rochester, New York and started The North Star newspaper. In 1855, he published his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. In his copious spare time, he ran a station on the Underground Railroad. He also took up the cause of women’s rights, saying at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, he could not accept the right to vote if women were not granted suffrage as well.
In 1861, the Civil War broke out and Frederick did not stop his work. He campaigned tirelessly that emancipation would be one of the outcomes of the war and advocated for African American troops. He recruited many of these young men to fight, including two of his own sons, and then went to Lincoln himself when they did not receive equal pay or fair treatment. His work bore fruit with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. These amendments ended slavery, granted citizenship to former slaves and stated no one could be denied voting rights on the basis for race, skin color or previous servitude.
During the Reconstruction, Frederick was a well known figure and held many prestigious offices such as assistant secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, legislative council member of the D.C. Territorial Government, board member of Howard University, and president of the Freedman’s Bank. However, when Reconstruction was declared over, Frederick did not just fade into the background. He served as a US Marshal for DC, Recorder of Deeds for DC and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. All at a time when African Americans were seriously restricted from holding office due to fraud and violence. His work in the government did not end his speaking career either. He worked vigorously for women’s rights, and published his third book in 1881, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. This indicated that as far as we have come, we still had a long way to go to being the Land of the Free. He was even named as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate in her 1872 run for the presidency, although he did not agree to it. (For more on that, please see this post http://www.historynaked.com/victoria-woodhull/)
Despite all of this official work, Frederick and Anna remained happily married until Anna’s tragic death from a stroke in 1882. Two years later, Frederick remarried and it was nothing less than a scandal. He married Helen Pitts, an activist and daughter of two abolitionist. She was twenty years his junior, which was not odd for the time, and also white. This did not go over well at all, and most of their married life was spent overseas.
Frederick Douglass died after a heart attack at the age of 77 after attending a meeting for the National Council of Women. Hail and Farewell.