One of America's most brilliant authors, orators, and organizers and the nineteenth century's most famous black leader, Douglass was the first fugitive slave to speak out publicly against slavery. On the morning of August 12, 1841, he stood up at an antislavery meeting on Nantucket Island off the Massachusetts coast. With great power and eloquence, he described his life in bondage. As soon as he finished, the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison asked the audience, "Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or to a man?" "A man! A man!" five hundred voices replied. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneering feminist, vividly 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 (who was originally named Frederick Bailey, after a Muslim ancestor, Belali Mohomet) had personally experienced many of slavery's worst horrors. Born in 1818, the son of a Maryland slave woman and an unknown white father, he was separated from his mother almost immediately after his birth, and remembered seeing her only four or five times before her death. Cared for by his maternal grandmother, a slave midwife, he suffered another cruel emotional blow when, at the age of 6, he was taken from his home to work on one of the largest plantations on Maryland's eastern shore. There, Douglass suffered chronic hunger and witnessed many of the cruelties that he later recorded in his autobiographies. He never forgot seeing an aunt receive forty lashes with a cowskin whip or a cousin bleeding from her shoulders and neck after a flogging by a drunken overseer.
Temporarily, Douglass was rescued from a life of menial plantation labor when he was sent to Baltimore to work for a shipwright. Here, his mistress taught him to read, until her husband declared that "learning would spoil the best" slave in the world. Douglass continued his education on his own. With 50 cents he earned blacking boots, Douglass bought a copy of the Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches that included a blistering attack on slavery. This book introduced him to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution and inspired him to perfect his oratorical skills.
At fifteen, his master's death resulted in Douglass's return to plantation life. Resentful at the loss of the relative freedom in a city, Douglass bitterly complained about the plantation's food and refused to call his owner "Master." To crush Douglass's rebellious spirit, his owner hired him out to a notorious "slave breaker" named Edward Covey. For seven months, Douglass endured abuse and beatings. But one hot August morning he could take no more. He fought back and defeated Covey in a fist fight. After this, he was no longer punished.
In 1836, Douglass and two close friends, John and Henry Harris, plotted to escape slavery. When the plan was uncovered, Douglass was thrown into jail. But instead of being sold to slave traders and shipped to the deep South, as he expected, Douglass was returned to Baltimore and promised freedom at the age of 25 if he behaved himself.
In Baltimore, Douglass worked in the city's shipyards. Virtually every day, white workers harassed him and on one occasion beat him with bricks and metal spikes, shouting "kill him--kill him...knock his brains out." Eventually, Douglass's owner gave him the unusual privilege of hiring himself out for wages and living independently. During this period of relative freedom Douglass joined the East Baltimore Improvement Society, a benevolent and educational organization, where he met Anna Murray, a free black woman whom he later married.
In 1838, after his owner threaten 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. To conceal his identity, he adopted a new last name, Douglass, chosen from Sir Walter Scott's poem, "Lady of the Lake."
After escaping from slavery, he adopted a new last name--Douglass--chosen from Sir Walter Scott's poem "Lady of the Lake," to conceal his identity; settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where in worked in the shipyards; and began to attend antislavery meetings. In August 1841, he was asked to speak to a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. It was then that he became the first fugitive slave to speak on behalf of the abolitionist cause.
As a travelling lecturer, Douglass electrified audiences with his first-hand accounts of slavery. His speeches combated the notion that slaves were content and undermined belief in racial inferiority. When many Northerners refused to belief that this eloquent orator could possibly have been a slave, he responded by writing an autobiography that identified his pervious owners by name. Fear that his autobiography made him vulnerable to kidnapping and return to slavery led Douglass to flee to England. Only after British abolitionists purchased his freedom for $711.66 did he return to the United States States.
Initially, Douglass supported
William Lloyd Garrison and the radical abolitionists, who believed
that moral purity was more important than political success.
The radicals questioned whether the Bible represented the word
of God because it condoned slavery; withdrew from churches that
permitted slavery; and refused to vote or hold public office.
Douglass later broke with Garrison, started his own newspaper,
The North Star, and supported political action against slavery.
He was an early supporter of the Republican party, even though
its goal was to halt slavery's expansion, not to abolish the
institution. Following the Civil War, the party would reward
his loyalty by appointing him marshall and register of deeds
for the District of Columbia and minister to Haiti.
Nevertheless, Douglass's main cause was the struggle against slavery and racial discrimination. In the 1840s and 1850s, he not only lectured tirelessly against slavery, he also raised funds to help fugitive slaves reach safety in Canada. During the Civil War, he lobbied President Lincoln to make slave emancipation a war aim and organize black regiments. Declaring that "liberty won by white men would lack half its lustre," he personally recruited some 2,000 African American troops for the Union army. Among the recruits were two of his sons, who took part in the bloody Union assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863, which resulted in more than 1,500 northern casualties--but which proved black troops' heroism in battle.
Douglass never wavered in his commitment to equal rights. During Reconstruction, he struggled to convince Congress to use federal power to safeguard the freedmen's rights. Later, as the country retreated from reconstruction, Douglass passionately denounced lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement. Toward the end of his career, he was asked what advice he had for a young man. "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!" he replied. Despite old age, Douglass never stopped agitating. He died in 1895, at the age of 77, after attending a women's rights meeting with Susan B. Anthony.
It is a striking historical coincidence that the year of Douglass's death brought a new black leader to national prominence. Seven months after Douglass's death, Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, delivered a speech in Atlanta, Georgia, which catapulted him into the public spotlight. The "Atlanta Compromise" speech called on African Americans to end their demands for equal rights and instead strive for economic advancement. "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the finger," Washington declared, "yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington's philosophy of "accommodation" with segregation represented the polar opposite of Douglass's goal of full civil and political equality.