Born Frederick Augustus Washington
Bailey in February 1818, the abolitionist,
editor and civil rights leader later known
as Frederick Douglass was the son of a
slave named Harriet Bailey. They lived on
Holmes Hill Farm on Maryland’s eastern
shore, which was owned by Aaron Anthony.
Douglass’s father was an unknown white
man. At the age of 6, Douglass was taken
away from his grandmother, who raised
him while his mother worked the fields.
Douglass joined his three siblings to work
as a field hand on a nearby plantation. The
slave children were fed cornmeal mush in
a trough and given only long linen shirts to
wear, winter and summer.
When he was 8, Douglass received his first pair of pants
and traveled to Baltimore to work for Hugh Auld, Anthony’s
relative. Auld’s wife, Sophia, regularly read the Bible aloud
and gave Douglass lessons in the alphabet. When Auld
discovered the lessons, he was irate, stating that a slave who
could read would be uncontrollable and could forge papers
for his escape. Sophia stopped the lessons, but Douglass
learned from Auld’s intense reaction that education was his
path to freedom.
“Though conscious of the difficulty of learning
without a teacher, I set out with high hope,
and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of
trouble, to learn how to read.”
Working on his own, Douglass learned the alphabet
and made friends with poor white children who taught
him reading fundamentals in exchange for pieces of
bread. He saved money and bought his first book: The
Columbian Orator. In it, Douglass read and later memorized
speeches and essays about democracy, courage
When Anthony died in 1826, what remained of
Douglass’s family was divided up as the owner’s property.
His beloved grandmother, too old to work, was put out
of her cabin and sent into the woods to die. Douglass’s
determination to become free increased. At 16, he was
sent back to work the fields for the infamous slave breaker
Edward Covey. After a year of regular beatings and near
starvation, Douglass was handed over to another farmer.
Douglass started an illegal school for blacks and began
to plot his escape. He was caught and jailed but soon went
back to work for Hugh Auld in Baltimore, apprenticing
at a shipyard. He studied with free blacks and met Anna
Murray, a free black woman who was very religious and
supportive of Douglass’s ambitions to free himself. The
couple was married in 1838.
“No man can put a chain about
the ankle of his fellow man
without at last finding the
other end fastened about his
On Sept. 3, 1838, Douglass escaped
slavery by posing as a sailor and ended
up in New Bedford, Mass., with his
new bride. He worked at a shipyard
and changed his name to Frederick
Douglass to throw off slave catchers.
In 1839, the Douglasses had the first
of five children.
In New Bedford, Douglass attended
church and abolitionist meetings,
continued his self-education and read
the Liberator, a newspaper edited by
William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of the
American Anti-Slavery Society. “The paper
became my meat and drink,” Douglass later
wrote. “My soul was set all on fire.”
In 1841, Douglass saw Garrison speak and a few
days later gave his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-
Slavery Society’s annual convention. Garrison employed Douglass on
the spot, and Douglass accompanied the leader and other prominent
speakers on lecture tours for the next several years. Despite being
mocked by pro-slavery mobs, physically attacked and thrown off
railway cars, Douglass knew he had found his calling.
“Through my many speeches about justice, and
through my newspaper and other writings, I
discovered that the power of the word is the
best means to bring about permanent positive
changes, both for myself and others.”
In 1845, Douglass published the first of three autobiographies,
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written
by Himself, despite the danger it posed to his freedom. However, to
evade Hugh Auld, who still held a legal claim on Douglass under
the fugitive slave laws, Douglass traveled to England for a two-year
speaking tour of the British Isles, raising anti-slavery sympathies. He
quickly garnered an international following, and two English friends
raised money to buy Douglass’s freedom in 1846. He accepted the gift
but said he only recognized Auld as his kidnapper, not his master.
In 1847, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a
weekly newspaper he ran out of his new home in Rochester, N.Y. In
his paper, which carried the motto “Right is of no sex – Truth is of no
color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren,” Douglass
wrote persuasively on the abolitionist movement and women’s
equality, among other social issues.
He participated in the first women’s rights convention in 1848 at
Seneca Falls, N.Y., along with Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet
depreciate agitation, are
men who want crops
without plowing up the
Douglass and his family lived
near the Canadian border, and
in the 1850s, their home was
an important station on the
Underground Railroad. He
and his wife, Anna, helped
countless men and women
During the presidential
election of 1860, Douglass
campaigned for Abraham
Lincoln. He was in Boston on
Dec. 31, 1862, the night the
president issued the Emancipation
Proclamation, freeing slaves in areas
not held by Union troops. He later called
that evening, “the dawn of a new day.”
When Congress authorized black enlistment
in the Union army in 1863, Douglass set out to help
men fight for their own freedom, raising two regiments of black
soldiers. Among the first to enlist were his sons Lewis and Charles.
During the war, Lincoln consulted with Douglass on several occasions,
asking his advice and perspective on the question of slavery. In
April 1865, the Civil War ended, and a few days later, the president
“I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard
of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to
be false, and incur my own abhorrence.”
The nation was in mourning, as was Douglass. But the fight for
equality continued. Slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment
in 1865, and the 14th Amendment provided African Americans with
citizenship and equal protection under the law. Finally, the 15th
Amendment granted the new citizens the right to vote.
Douglass was appointed a U.S. marshal for the District of
Columbia, as his new home was in Washington, D.C., and he served
from 1877 to 1881 until he took over as recorder of deeds for D.C.
After Anna passed away in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts
in 1884. Their marriage, as with most of Douglass’s actions, caused
quite a controversy. Pitts was a white feminist who was 20 years his
junior. Despite the displeasure of Pitts’ family and Douglass’s children,
the couple traveled extensively and spoke for racial and gender
At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass was the
first African-American to receive a vote for president of the United
States in a major party’s roll call vote. In 1889, he was appointed U.S.
minister to Haiti.
Douglass passed away at his home after attending a meeting of
the National Council of Women on Feb. 20, 1895. But his words live
on and his legacy as a tireless champion for freedom, equality and