Frederick Douglass was born around 1818, with the given name of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland, to a slave mother who was sold to a plantation twelve miles away shortly after his birth. Douglass only saw his mother a few times over the next seven years when she made the long twelve mile walk for a short visit at night, only to walk all the way back and then work all the next day in the fields without rest. She died when Frederick was around seven years old. Douglass knew his father was white, and suspected he was the master, Aaron Anthony, but never knew for sure.
In 1826, Douglass was sent to live with the Hugh Auld family in Baltimore and worked as a ship’s carpenter. He grew up witnessing and living all of the horrors of slavery, including brutal beatings and other degradations that slaves endured. Although he never had the warmth of a good and loving home, Sophia Auld did teach him “his letters” so he got a good start on learning. Hugh Auld stopped the lessons because he felt that slaves with knowledge became discontent and rebellious — keeping slaves as illiterate as possible kept the slave owners in a position of power. Douglass did learn enough to read, and through his reading, learned about abolition and abolitionists. Douglass is quoted as saying “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”
Douglass spent the next eight years in this relatively “safe world” before being sent back to the country where he was “hired out” to Edward Covey. Covey was known to be the “slave breaker” and for his notorious treatment of slaves. He whipped his slaves daily and gave them barely any food until they were “broken in body, soul, and spirit” and were made to accept slavery as their lot in life. Douglass tried to escape in April of 1836, but his plot was foiled upon discovery and he spent two years in prison. On the first day of that year he had vowed to himself that he would be free by the end of the year but clearly that was not the case.
After being released from prison, Douglass went back to work at the Baltimore shipyards and docks. On September 3, 1838, he did escape and “fled the city” by steamboat. He traveled from there by train to New York City where he married Anne Murray, whom he met when he worked the shipyards as a caulker. Together, they went on to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he took his new name of Frederick Douglass. In 1839 a daughter, Doughter Rosetta was born, with Lewis Henry born in 1840, Frederick Jr. in 1842, Charles Remond was born in 1844, and finally, Annie was born in 1849.
Douglass learned enough of his “letters” from Sophia Auld to educate himself, and became an avid reader. He subscribed to a weekly journal called the Liberator, written and published by William Lloyd Garrison, who became his “hero” and mentor until Douglass realized that Garrison was too radical in his beliefs. Apparently, Garrison felt the Constitution was pro-slavery, when Douglass saw the Constitution as anti-slavery. At that point Douglass went in a different political direction than Garrison and became one of the most effective and well-known abolitionist speakers for anti-slavery and equal rights, and for women’s rights, throughout the eastern and mid-west regions of the United States. He also had many speaking tours throughout Europe, in Scotland, and in England. Along with writing for newspapers, Douglass published three autobiographies.
In 1846 Douglass became legally free when British supporters purchased his freedom from Hugh Auld, his former master.
In 1847 the Douglass family moved to Rochester, New York, where they became active in Susan B. Anthony’s women’s movement. Frederick started the newspaper North Star, with Martin R. Delany and William Cooper Nell in the basement of a church that was known for their “underground” activities. Starting this newspaper ended Douglass’ “dependence” on Garrison and other white abolitionists he had been affiliated with. In 1851, the name of the paper was changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
In 1848 the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York , where Douglass met Julia Griffiths, whom he brought home to live with his family as their tutor. When she began to work as his business manager there was quite the scandal because she was white, but the people gradually adjusted to the sight of them together until she moved out of the country and returned to her home in England in 1852.
Douglas became involved as a “Station Master” for the Underground Railroad in Rochester and helped many slaves escape and begin new lives as free people.
In 1882, Anna Douglass died after a long illness and in 1884 Frederick married his secretary, Helen Pitts – a white woman twenty years his junior — from Honeoye, New York. Their families, and the general public, were opposed to their inter-racial marriage, but Douglass’ response was “My first wife was the color of my mother, my second is the color of my father.”
Douglas died on February 20, 1895 from a heart attack.
For more about the many accomplishments, rescues of escaping slaves, work with civil and women’s rights, and his personal life, click the links for Frederick Douglass below.