G'day folks,

Happy to present another activist.  Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, born in 1818.

Frederick Douglass was a former slave who escaped and became a powerful anti-slavery orator. Douglass wrote three autobiographies describing his experiences as a slave and then gaining his freedom. His writings and speeches became powerful testimonies to support the abolition of slavery. Douglass was the most influential African-American leader of the Nineteenth Century, and exemplified great moral courage in opposing slavery and injustice.

 Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland. His mother, Harrier Bailey was a slave; his father was probably his mother’s slave owner. He saw little of his mother when growing up, and she died when he was 10. The young Douglass was brought up by his grandmother until the age of seven, when he was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh Auld.

Although still a slave, in Baltimore, the young Douglas was taught to read by the wife of his Master – Sophia Auld. Douglas had fond memories of Sophia and felt he was treated like a human being; these early steps in learning to read would prove critical for awakening in Douglass a greater aspiration for freedom. Douglass said that going to Baltimore was crucial in enabling him to eventually escape slavery.

He also said that even in his darkest hours of slavery, he always held onto an inner conviction that ‘slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace‘. He saw the hand of Providence in guiding him to eventual freedom, writing,’ This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.’

However, when Hugh Auld discovered his wife had been teaching Douglass to read, he expressed his strong displeasure. Like many slave owners, he feared that if slaves became educated they would have an even greater desire for freedom. This made it more difficult for Douglas to be educated, but he continued to try, in secret, to read newspapers and books which gave him a broader education.

In particular, he later credited the newspaper, The Colombian Orator for developing his strong ideals on human dignity and individual freedom. The attitude of his slave master, in trying to prevent him from reading, was also a cautionary lesson for Douglass and throughout his life he emphasised the importance of education to help ameliorate the conditions of African Americans.

His ability to read was hugely influential. When he was moved away from the home of the Auld’s, Douglass made an effort to educate other slaves on how to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday School. Douglass was able to act as teacher for a large group of slaves for six months, before the activity was broken up by slave owners – incensed by the idea of their slaves being educated.

 In 1833, Douglass was sent to work for Edward Covey a farmer and notorious slave driver. Covey regularly whipped Douglass and his other slaves. The experience left Douglass with deep mental and physical scars, but it strengthened his resolve to escape from slavery. Douglass began formulating a plan, but his plans were discovered and he was sent to prison. However, he came into contact with Anna Murray-Douglass a free black women. The two fell in love, and she used her savings to help Douglass escape. In September 1838, Douglass, dressed in a sailor’s uniform, escaped via train and steamboat to Philadelphia and then on to New York. He stayed, temporarily, in the home of New York abolitionist David Ruggles. He later wrote of his overwhelming joy in escaping the life of a slave and finding himself a freeman on free soil.

Eleven days after arriving in new York, he married Anna, who had helped him escape from slavery. Douglass was married to Anna for 44 years, until she died in 1882. They had five children.

The Douglass’ settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they became active in anti-slavery campaigns. An important influence was William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was a fierce anti-slavery campaigner, who held uncompromising views on abolishing slavery. Listening to Garrison speak was an important moment for Douglass, and he became more committed to the movement. Garrison also mentioned Douglass in his weekly journal – The Liberator.

In 1841, aged 23, he was invited to give a speech to an anti-slavery meeting. Overcoming his nervousness, Douglass got up and gave a passionate speech about his painful life as a slave and the joy of gaining freedom. Garrison became a friend and supporter of Douglass and invited him on a lecture tour of the US.

Douglass spent six months travelling through the mid west and East US giving lectures on the abolition of slavery. It was a courageous action because, at the time there was great resistance to the idea of abolishing slavery. Douglass was frequently attacked physically and verbally. In Pendleton, Indiana, he suffered a broken hand, when being attacked by a mob. Many were amazed to see a black man speaking with great eloquence and intellect; his powerful speeches challenged many people’s views – prevalent at the time – that black men were racially inferior and couldn’t be properly integrated into society. Douglass was a powerful example of intellect, humanity and charisma – undermining the racist views of the day. He made a strong moral case against slavery.

 In 1845, Douglass wrote his first autobiography – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. It became a best seller and was reprinted several times. It was a ground-breaking work, one of the earliest first hand accounts of slavery. Some even doubted whether a slave was capable or writing so well. It launched him as a national figure. In 1855, he followed up with a second book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Lecture tour in the British Isles

This was still a dangerous time to be a freed slave. After naming his former slave owner in his autobiography, he feared recapture. If he was recaptured, the law wouldn’t protect him. Douglass, supported by friends, decided to go on a two year lecture tour of Ireland and Britain. He arrived in Ireland in 1845, and was amazed at the lack of racial prejudice – which he had become so accustomed to in America. His lecture tour was a great success, with Douglass speaking to packed audiences at churches and meeting halls across the two countries. He developed friendships with many people sympathetic to the cause of abolishing slavery. 

Supporters raised sufficient funds to be able to buy his freedom from his slave owner. He met with Thomas Clarkson, a prominent abolitionist. Douglass was encouraged to stay in England to be safe from the threat of being put back into slavery. But, he felt a need to return to the US and work for the emancipation of the three million slaves still captive in the US.

 In 1848, he attend the women’s rights convention in Seneca. Douglass was the only African American to attend. He spoke passionately in favour of women’s suffrage and became a lifelong supporter for the women’s rights movement, becoming acquainted with prominent women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Douglass felt rights for black people should be linked with rights for women’s rights. However, after the Civil War, he felt he had to drop support for womens’ suffrage to enable the passage of the 15th Amendment, giving black men the vote. Douglass feared if womens’ suffrage was attached to the bill, it would mean failure for both. Though he made of point of saying he never argued against women’s right to vote.

On February 20, 1895, Douglass died of a heart attack or stroke in Washington D.C. Thousands attended his funeral a the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal church.


Clancy's comment: I take my hat off to folks like this man, especially when you read about the times in which they lived. Would have been tough.

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