Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)--one of America's most brilliant authors, orators, and organizers and the nineteenth century's most famous black leader--was the first fugitive slave to speak out publicly against slavery. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneering feminist, recalled her first glimpse of Douglass on an abolitionist platform: "He stood there like an African prince, majestic in his wrath, as with wit, satire, and indignation he graphically described the bitterness of slavery and the humiliation of subjection."
Douglass (originally named Frederick Bailey) was born in 1818, the son of a Maryland slave woman and an unknown white father. Separated from his mother almost immediately after his birth, he remembered seeing her only four or five times before her death. Beginning at the age of 6, he worked as a slave on plantations and in Baltimore's shipyards; he also learned to read and discovered the existence of reasoned antislavery arguments.
In 1838, after his owner threatened to take away his right to hire out his time, Douglass decided to run away. With papers borrowed from a free black sailor, he boarded a train and rode to freedom. Beginning in 1841, when he first spoke at a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass electrified audiences with his first-hand accounts of slavery. Douglass supported many reforms including temperance and women's rights. He was one of the few men to attend the first women's rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, and he was the only man to vote for a resolution demanding the vote for women.
But his main cause was the struggle against slavery and racial discrimination. In the 1840s and 1850s, he also raised funds to help fugitive slaves reach safety in Canada, and during the Civil War he lobbied President Lincoln to organize black regiments and make slave emancipation a war aim. Following the Civil War, he was appointed marshal and register of deeds for the District of Columbia and minister to Haiti. He retained the fiery attitudes of his youth into old age. When asked what should young African Americans do?, he replied: "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!" He died in 1895, at the age of 77, after attending a women's rights meeting with Susan B. Anthony.
In this brief note, written in an autograph album, Douglass sums up his philosophy.
I am for Liberty, the right of each man to own his own body and Soul, whatever may be his colour, wherever he may be born--whether of one race or another--I am for Liberty now, and always--to the weak as well as the Strong--I am for Liberty--Universal Liberty, whenever the haughty tyrant rears his head or the dejected Slave drags a Chain.