Profiles in Greatness: Frederick Douglass

UPDATED: May 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 1, 2012

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 and freedom.

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 own neck.”

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 ground.”

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 to freedom.

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 was assassinated.

“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 equality.

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 justice endures.

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.