Black History Month: Frederick Douglass

In his journey from captive slave to internationally renowned activist, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) has been a source of inspiration and hope for millions. His brilliant words and brave actions continue to shape the ways that we think about race, democracy, and the meaning of freedom.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in February 1818. He had a difficult family life. He barely knew his mother, who lived on a different plantation and died when he was a young child. He never discovered the identity of his father. When he turned eight years old, his slaveowner hired him out to work as a body servant in Baltimore.

At an early age, Frederick realized there was a connection between literacy and freedom. Not allowed to attend school, he taught himself to read and write in the streets of Baltimore. At twelve, he bought a book called The Columbian Orator. It was a collection of revolutionary speeches, debates, and writings on natural rights.

When Frederick was fifteen, his slaveowner sent him back to the Eastern Shore to labor as a fieldhand. Frederick rebelled intensely. He educated other slaves, physically fought back against a “slave-breaker,” and plotted an unsuccessful escape.

Frustrated, his slaveowner returned him to Baltimore. This time, Frederick met a young free black woman named Anna Murray, who agreed to help him escape. On September 3, 1838, he disguised himself as a sailor and boarded a northbound train, using money from Anna to pay for his ticket. In less than 24 hours, Frederick arrived in New York City and declared himself free.

Frederick and Anna married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they adopted the last name “Douglass.” They started their family, which would eventually grow to include five children: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Charles, and Annie.  Source: nps.org


Through his words, Frederick Douglass has shaped the ways that we think about race, democracy, and the meaning of freedom. Some of his most influential quotes can be found in “Thoughts for All Time,” an exhibit in the visitor center at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. These quotes come from his speeches and writings. 

“Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves, they were not quite free. No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, and action of others, and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defecting, and maintaining that liberty.” ~ Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881   Source: nps.gov

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