The Life & Legacy
of Frederick Douglass
William S. Connery
World and I
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The Life & Legacy of Frederick Douglass
William S. Connery
World and I
Born a slave in Maryland, Frederick Douglas eventually escaped to freedom. His lifelong struggles for liberty and the rights of others have become a stirring episode in the darkest chapter of American history.
A modern painting of Frederick Douglass by Richard Hunt.
On November 13, 2002, at Adrian College, Michigan, Frederick Douglass IV and his wife, B.J., announced that they were embarking on a mission to empower young people. "We're celebrating my great-great-grandfather's escape from slavery--on September 3, 1838--by taking what we think is a vital message to America's young people," said Douglass. "We tell them that if Frederick Douglass could come into this world as a totally impoverished slave and transform himself into an orator, author, member of the middle class, and confidant of presidents, then their potential--in an era of free access to public education--is unlimited. But they must begin charting their successful futures today.
       "We hope to inspire and empower 165,000 young people to develop their skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, and public speaking. We hope to admonish young people to preserve their brains through abstaining from drugs, drinking, and wallowing in self-pity; advise them to use Wait Power through deferring their involvement in premarital sex and other distracting activities; and encourage young people to begin charting their successful futures today, by planning to attend college or a trade school and/or to become entrepreneurs."
       "We want to uplift and empower a thousand young people for each of the years that have passed since Frederick Douglass empowered himself by fleeing from slavery," added B.J. "We believe that each young person whose life we touch will go out and influence other youths to transform their lives for the better. Ultimately, we hope there will be a cumulative effect, a compounding social interest on this investment in youth, that will have tremendous benefits for all Americans."
       "We have chosen to come to Adrian College to announce the 'Frederick Douglass 165 Years of Freedom Tour' [a variety of presentations and performances featuring Douglass IV and his wife] because we believe in the mission of the Sojourner Truth Technical Training Center," said Douglass IV. "We think that it is imperative to document and preserve the awesome history of Underground Railroad activities in Michigan through the use of computers, digital video, still cameras, and other futuristic technology. My great-great-grandfather was also active in the Underground Railroad in Michigan and spoke at various locations in this region."
       The culmination of the Years of Freedom Tour will take place on September 3, 2003, during the national Frederick Douglass Freedom Day observance. "The central idea of the celebration," said Douglass, "involves encouraging young people to strengthen their reading, writing, and public speaking skills through doing live presentations in front of audiences. Part of the celebration involves encouraging people throughout America to read The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself, which is an inspiring book."
       Douglass IV was born in Pennsylvania and came to Baltimore in 1965 to enroll at Morgan State University (then Morgan College). His ancestor's statue graces the campus. After a varied career in the private and public sector, Douglass IV became Morgan's director of public relations. Starting in 1997, he and B.J. began portraying Frederick and Anna Douglass in powerful dramatic presentations. They also conduct workshops in conjunction with their performances. These sessions are structured, they explain, "to encourage participants from differing racial, gender, and age groups to engage in dialogues that promote greater understanding of how we must change to become more sensitive and caring Americans. We must come to understand that we are all Americans."
       Douglass IV is also a leading proponent of preserving and commemorating the memory of Frederick Douglass in Baltimore. "This was his home," he explains simply. Despite harsh memories and a long exile, Frederick always considered himself a Marylander. He regarded Baltimore as his hometown and thought of his years in Fells Point as formative, the foundation of all that he eventually became.
His early life
Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in either 1817 or 1818. His mother was a slave woman named Harriet Bailey. His father, a white man, is unknown, though it was probably Aaron Anthony, the manager of the plantations of Edward Lloyd V, Bailey's white owner. There was no birth certificate for Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Born a slave, he came into this world considered little more valuable than livestock.
       Young Frederick lived mostly with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey. He barely knew his mother. She was forced to work twelve miles away, on a neighboring farm, and could only visit her child at night, after finishing her own work and walking from farm to farm.

Frederick Douglass IV and his wife, B.J., portray Frederick and Anna.
       Harriet always referred to Frederick as her "little Valentine," so he adopted February 14 as his birthday. When he was seven his grandmother took him to the Main House, where he became one of the household slaves. There he began to encounter the evils of slavery more directly. One incident had particular impact. His Aunt Hester was caught out of the house in the company of a young male slave. For this transgression she was tied and whipped until her blood flowed. Thinking he was next, Frederick hid in a closet, hearing Hester's shrieks and Anthony's curses as he administered the flogging.
       Shortly thereafter something happened to Frederick that he later declared an "act of Providence." He was sent to Fells Point in Baltimore to be a slave to Hugh Auld, the brother of Anthony's son-in-law. (Anthony's daughter Lucretia, who in some respects served as Frederick's protector on the plantation, was married to a ship's captain named Thomas Auld.)
       Frederick was grateful to escape from the farm and travel across the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore had a large population of free blacks, and he discovered that slaves were generally better treated in the city. He attributed this phenomenon to the fact that there were many people around to observe how slaves were managed.
       Douglass later wrote that "going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. ... I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. ... This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise."
       Frederick was also enthralled by his new mistress. Sophia Auld was the first white person who actually smiled at and was kind to him. She taught him not to be servile--that he should hold his head up and look people squarely in the eye. She also began to teach him the alphabet and a few simple words. This whole enterprise ended when her husband found out about it. Auld told his wife she had poor judgment. What he said was clearly remembered by Frederick: "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell [45 inches]. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. If you teach this nigger to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master."
       Frederick had lost his original teacher, but he learned a valuable lesson concerning the importance of education on his own road to freedom. He found time after doing his chores to go outdoors and interact with white children. He would find a piece of chalk, write a letter on a fence, and challenge the others to give him the next letter. In this way, he learned his alphabet.
A Soul Awakened
When he was around twelve, Frederick bought a book of speeches called The Columbian Orator. He was particularly moved by one dialogue between a master and a slave, where the servant proved the necessity of his being set free. Yet Frederick was perplexed. He began to see that there was perverse truth in what Auld had said. The more he read and learned, the more tormented he felt with his present situation. He had been given a view of his wretched circumstances without hope of a remedy. He realized the hell he was in but had no ladder to escape. He even envied his fellow slaves for their ignorance.

Anna Douglass, first wife of Frederick Douglas.
       Another moment of enlightenment came to him one day on the docks of Fells Point. Unasked, he helped two Irishmen unload stone from a ship. One asked him if he were a slave. He answered yes. The Irishman responded that it was shame for such a fine young fellow to be a slave for life. They advised him to run off to the north, where he would be free.
       Frederick pretended not to understand. He knew that there were treacherous white men who deceived slaves into escape, then would capture and return them to their masters for a reward. But the seed of his eventual freedom, the idea of the possibility of escape, had been planted.
       While in Baltimore, Frederick also achieved religious awakening. The 1820s and '30s were a time of preaching throughout the states. Some slaveholders were fearful of allowing slaves to become Christians. Others hoped religion would make blacks more accepting of their fate. The message most white preachers offered was one of resignation and acceptance of their lot. They taught that slavery was the benevolent creation of God and that faithful and obedient slaves would be rewarded in heaven.
       This is not how Frederick interpreted Christianity. For him it meant the equality of all people before God and deliverance from bondage in this life. Religion taught Frederick to value himself, love others, and work to achieve freedom. His religious faith was life affirming and gave him both comfort and a degree of personal autonomy. In his later years he would have little use for organized religion because of the hypocrisy of many professed believers, who both went to church and supported slavery. Nevertheless, throughout his life, Christianity's ideals helped inspire his work and guide his actions.
       Finally, Frederick confronted the need to fight for his freedom. Following Anthony's death, Frederick was shipped back to Talbot County. There he became a fieldhand and experienced the true suffering of a slave. Hands were forced to work from dawn to past dark, if the moon was bright. Soon thereafter Frederick was hired out to Edward Covey, a well-known "slave breaker."
       Covey's job was to beat Frederick into submission and acceptance of slavery. A slave's job was very simple: do exactly what the master ordered. For Frederick, who had not experienced field life before, most of the time this was impossible. For six months he was beaten at least once a week.
       It must be remembered that this happened in the relatively free state of Maryland, less than a hundred miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Always hanging over the slave was the possibility of being sold far south, to Alabama or Mississippi, where the conditions were far worse. Submission to beatings was compounded by fear: better the devil you know than the devil you don't know!
       At one point Covey almost beat him to death. Subsequently Frederick met another slave who told him to keep a special root with him at all times to ward off beatings from the whites. Shortly after this, Covey attacked him again. This time Frederick fought the overseer to a standstill. About eighteen at the time, Frederick considered this the turning point of his life as a subordinate. He had repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. He also convinced himself that the next white man to try to whip him would have to kill him.
Escape to Freedom
After a year under Covey, Frederick was hired out to William Freeland. He felt this new master did treat him more like an individual, but his determination to reach freedom was becoming stronger. Frederick forged passes for a few fellow slaves and himself, allowing them to go to Baltimore for the Easter holidays. Their actual aim was to take a boat up the Chesapeake and escape into Pennsylvania. When the plan was found out, the group was sent to jail. Luckily, Frederick was sent back to Baltimore, not to the horrors of the Deep South.
This picture of a praying slave on a medallion was first published by Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795). It was adopted as the seal of the Anti-Slavery Society in London.
       Auld hired Frederick out and he learned how to caulk ships. During this time he attended a Methodist church on Strawberry Lane (now Dallas Street). He also fell in love with a free black woman named Anna Murray. Eventually Frederick arranged a deal whereby he could hire himself out while paying his master three dollars a week. By
the end of August 1837 he had another dispute with Auld. Frederick realized that he would soon be sold south if he did not make a move.
       With his small savings, and with money from his fiancZe, Frederick bought a sailor's outfit. He then borrowed travel papers from a black sailor he knew. On September 3, he boarded a train for Wilmington at Canton, just north of Fells Point. When the conductor came around, he showed his paper and bought a ticket. From Wilmington he caught a steamboat to Philadelphia. He felt some sense of freedom entering Pennsylvania but kept going until he reached New York City.
       He wrote for Anna to come north, and they were married on September 15. Soon afterward Frederick went to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he attempted to renew his trade as a ship's caulker. It was there that an abolitionist friend suggested that he change his name from Bailey to Douglass. The name comes from a character in Walter Scott's novel The Lady of the Lake.
       As prejudice against blacks was still considerable, Douglass was forced to take on odd jobs. In 1841 he gave his first speech at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society; soon, he became an agent for the society, traveling throughout the Northeast and Midwest, lecturing against slavery and campaigning for the rights of free blacks. By 1845 it was suggested that he publish his life story, to tell the nation the reality of slavery. Thus he published the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.
       Soon he was forced to go abroad to England to escape recapture. He spoke throughout the British Isles concerning the American antislavery movement. In 1846 British supporters purchased his freedom from his former master. So, the following year, Douglass returned to America and settled in Rochester, New York. There he started a weekly newspaper called the North Star. He wrote scathing editorials on a variety of topics, slavery being just one of his targets. About the need to be adamantly concerned about the plight of slaves, he wrote, "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground."
       In 1848 Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Women's Convention, where he began to advocate equal rights and the vote for women. He considered the handling of women as practically chattel almost as horrific as the inhumane treatment of slaves. The 1850s were spent in publishing, speaking, and working with fellow abolitionists, including John Brown, who tried to convince him to join the raid on Harper's Ferry. After Brown's capture and death, Douglass mourned him as being one greater than himself: he was willing to live to free the slaves, but Brown was willing to give his life.
       Due to his support of Brown, Douglass had to flee the United States once again. He went first to Canada and then to Great Britain. He returned to the States in 1860, after hearing of the death of his eleven-year-old daughter, Annie.
The Civil War
Immediately after the Civil War began in April 1861, Douglass began to call for the use of black troops to fight the Confederacy. He argued for the establishment of colored regiments in the Union army. President Lincoln's first concern was preserving the Union, however, so Douglass' call was not heeded.
       Douglass saw the Civil War as a struggle between freedom and slavery. For him, the sin of slavery could only be ended if Americans were forced to shed their blood. Brown would be vindicated and blacks could take their place as citizens and equals. It was not until January 1863, following the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, that Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts was given permission to raise the 54th Regiment of Colored Troops. Douglass became a recruiter, personally enlisting two companies of men, including two of his own sons (Charles and Lewis).
       Negro recruitment was extremely important for Douglass. Only through black participation in the war, he believed, could abolition and full citizenship for Negroes be established: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth ... which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States."
       In July 1863, Douglass met with Lincoln in the White House to redress the grievances that the black troops were suffering as second-class citizens. Both men had risen from humble origins to become leaders in America. Only days after their meeting, the president ordered that retaliatory measures be taken for every Union prisoner killed or sold into slavery in violation of the rules of law. Before the end of the war, many black soldiers were receiving equal pay and promotions. During the last two years of the war nearly 200,000 African Americans served in Union regiments. When given the chance to fight, blacks proved as brave as anyone. More than 30,000 blacks died fighting for freedom and the Union. After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Mrs. Lincoln presented Douglass with Abe's cane as a token of respect and admiration.
Return to Baltimore
Two weeks after Maryland abolished slavery in 1864, Douglass returned to Fells Point to celebrate. It was his first sojourn in his home state since 1838. He contemplated moving back to the city to live but was dissuaded by friends. They warned that he could be assassinated. Although he never again lived in Baltimore, he returned repeatedly over the years to speak, invest, and revisit the scenes of his tumultuous youth.
       He went to the Strawberry Alley church to join in the emancipation celebration. Sounding a theme of fondness for his home state, he declared that "Maryland is now a glorious free state ... the revolution is genuine, full and complete." He went on to argue that white Marylanders--some of whom were sprinkled throughout the audience--had nothing to fear from racial equality, and that Maryland should move to give blacks the right to vote and hold office. (It was not until 2002, when Republican Michael Steele was elected lieutenant governor, that any African American was voted to statewide higher office in Maryland.)
       Nine months after speaking at the Strawberry Alley church, Douglass received an even warmer welcome from a group of black Baltimoreans. They, with help from white philanthropists, christened the Douglass Institute as a center for the intellectual advancement of "the colored portion of the community." Douglass gave the opening speech, touching on postwar race relations, including his disappointed hopes for racial integration and the idea that "wealth, learning and ability ... convert a Negro into a white man [in terms of status and rights] in this country. When prejudice cannot deny the black man ability, it denies his race."
       In May 1870, after President Grant signed the Fifteenth Amendment giving male blacks the right to vote, Douglass went on a prolonged speaking tour to spread the news. One of his stops was Baltimore. Here he spoke as a homecoming hero to a crowd of twenty thousand at Monument Square. Following the speech, Baltimoreans acclaimed Douglass as "the foremost man of color of our times" and called on him to "return to us, and by the power of his magnificent manhood help us to a higher, broader and nobler manhood." The following year he returned to visit the shipyards where he had worked and often fought.
       While he was visiting Washington in 1872, his home in Rochester burned down under suspicious circumstances. At that point he moved his family to the District of Columbia. In 1877 Douglass purchased Cedar Hill, a nine-acre estate in Anacostia where he would spend the remainder of his life. He returned often to Baltimore and in 1891 found that the old Strawberry Alley church had been abandoned by the congregation. He bought the property, demolished the decrepit building, and built five new row houses on its foundation, which he intended as housing for the neighborhood's shack-dwelling residents. Those houses still stand.
The Year of Frederick Douglass
Agitate, agitate, agitate!" With these words, Frederick Douglass exhorted a woman's suffrage meeting on February 20, 1895. After returning to Cedar Hill, he was dramatizing his speech to his second wife, Helen, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. It was just a week past his seventy-seventh birthday, or maybe it was his seventy-eighth. He wasn't quite sure.
       Though he didn't know his own age, this remarkable man had a unique impact on the age in which he lived and this nation's history. Born a slave, he spent most of his life fighting: first for personal freedom, then for the freedom of his own people, and then for female equality. He always cited his youth in Fells Point as crucial in forming his character and defining his life's mission.
       Ironically, in Baltimore, a city that celebrates its connections to Edgar Allan Poe, Babe Ruth, and H.L. Mencken, the heritage of Frederick Douglass is often overlooked or forgotten. Possibly this is because he was originally a slave. The era of slavery is now a part of history that many Americans would like to forget. All the places in Baltimore where Douglass lived and worked--except for the row homes he constructed--are long gone, but efforts to resurrect his memory and legacy are ongoing.
New plaques (and possibly a statue) marking a "Frederick Douglass Trail" will be dedicated throughout Fells Point on February 17, 2003. Frederick Douglass IV, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and other dignitaries will be there to dedicate the trail and commemorate the life of a man who fought for the freedom of all men and women.
       During 2003, Douglass IV and his wife will serve as honorary chairpersons of the "Read Across America" campaign in Maryland. They will also be involved in a wide array of other activities.
They will join residents of Rochester, New York, to celebrate 2003 as the Year of Frederick Douglass. Centered in Rochester, Baltimore, and Washington, the celebration will focus on Douglass' call in 1863 for "men of color" to sign up to fight in the Civil War on the side of the Union. A highlight of the celebration will be the U.S. Colored Troops Institute conference. During Frederick Douglass Week--February 14 to 21--numerous celebrations commemorating his birth and death will be held across the United States.
       The legacy of Frederick Douglass in Baltimore was given a boost when O'Malley declared Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass the Baltimore Book of 2002.The mayor ordered two thousand copies of the Dover Thrift edition and distributed them to middle-school student council members during his visits. O'Malley declared that he chose the book because it stirred his imagination when he first read it in the fourth grade. When he reread it last summer, he was particularly intrigued by Douglass' equation of the Catholic emancipation cause in Ireland with his struggle to be free of slavery. "It's a very empowering book," O'Malley says. "It's difficult to whine after reading it."
       Douglass IV and his wife have been busy distributing copies of the book after talks given in libraries around Baltimore. They hope that it will be adopted as a curriculum staple nationwide. They also frequently perform their play, Frederick and Anna: Alive and in Love.
       Last year they performed at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Library on September 3, 2002, to celebrate National Frederick Douglass Freedom Day. Lynne Cheney, author and wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, was a distinguished guest at the event. She received the Frederick Douglass Leadership Award for her efforts to promote the study of American history among children for her book Patriotism: An American Primer, which includes a page on Frederick Douglass.
       "Although Douglass never went to school, he realized how important it was to be able to read and write, to acquire knowledge," said Cheney. "I can't think of a story more inspiring than that of Frederick Douglass."
Additional Reading
Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, Library of America, New York, 1994.
----, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Collier Books, New York, 1962.
----, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Dover Thrift Edition, Mineola, New York, 1995.
Nathan Irvin Huggins, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, HarperCollins, New York, 1980.
Douglass T. Miller, Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom, Facts on File Publications, New York, 1988.
Sharman A. Russell, Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist Editor, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1988.
William S. Connery is an editor in the Current Issues section of The World & I. His essays on immigration into Fells Point, the death of Edgar Allan Poe, and Polish Christmas in East Baltimore were previously published in the Culture section.
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