It could be said that in order to earn his rightful freedom Frederick Douglass had to liberate himself from three different kinds of enslavement – mental, physical, and legal.
Mental – Slave owners feared that if slaves were educated they could learn powerful ideas about abolition and share those ideas with others, making them more likely to rebel. In the 1830s a Harpers Weekly article stated that “the alphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a people enslaved refuse to teach them to read.” Therefore, like many other slaves, Douglass was deprived of education by his slave masters. One of them, Hugh Auld, reprimanded his young wife Sophia for beginning to teach the boy Douglass to read. Auld warned it would “forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.” This gave Douglass the revelation that knowledge was the “pathway from slavery to freedom.” He continued to learn to read and write, first with the help of local white children, and then by teaching himself. It was this learning, and the ideas he encountered, especially in a book called The Colombian Orator, that convinced him to strive for physical freedom.
Physical – After two earlier failed attempts, Douglass finally escaped to freedom in September 1838. He dressed in a sailor’s suit given to him by a friend. Douglass also carried his friend’s protection papers. He boarded a train that took him from Maryland to Delaware, also a slave state. If the conductor had properly checked the papers he would have realised Douglass did not match the description given. From Delaware, Douglass took a steamship to Philadelphia. Again, the borrowed papers were not closely inspected. Douglass then made his way, on another train, to New York. He had his freedom at last.
Legal – However, Federal law in the US gave his slave owner, Hugh Auld, the right to seize and re-enslave him. This became a much larger risk after 1845, when Douglass released his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller. Douglass therefore chose to set sail for Europe, spending 19 months in Britain and Ireland between 1845-47. His hosts in Newcastle, The Richardsons of 5 Summerhill Grove, helped raise the money, £150, to formally buy his freedom. This allowed Douglass to safely return home. When he made his final visit to the North East, in 1886, he did so primarily to visit Ellen and Anna Richardson, who he described as “instrumental in giving me the chance of devoting my life to the cause of freedom.”
Douglass’ devotion to the cause of freedom was significant and enduring. His words – in his books, speeches, and articles – helped alert many to the evils of slavery. He met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House on several occasions and helped convince him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a major symbolic blow to slavery. Slavery was then legally abolished in the United States with the 13th amendment in 1865. Douglass was also a conductor for the Underground Railroad. This was not an actual railroad, but a series of secret passages and safe houses that slaves could use during their escapes from the slave states in the south to the free states in the north (or to Canada). Douglass’ house in Rochester, New York, was the final station on the railroad before the crossing to Canada. The Underground Railroad has recently been depicted in fiction, with the Pulitzer prize winning novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and on TV, with the series Underground (in which Douglass was played by John Legend).
Henry “Box” Brown mailed himself in a large wooden crate from the slave state of Virginia to the free state of Philadelphia. He created a stage show about his escape, and while in England he mailed himself around the country – in what he claimed was the same box – to attract publicity. Brown performed his show, Panorama of Slave Life, in Newcastle and North and South Shields towards the end of 1852. His story was recently turned into a successful show, Henry Box Brown: A Hip Hop Musical, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2018.
The married couple Ellen and William Craft had been slaves in Georgia. The fair-skinned Ellen disguised herself as a white male plantation owner while her husband William posed as her servant. They made their way, via steamships and trains, to the north, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day 1848. Their escape was widely publicized, their subsequent fame making them at risk of recapture, especially after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. So they set sail for Britain, where they lived for almost twenty years. They spent the majority of that time in London, but, like many before and after them, they visited Newcastle on several occasions
Frederick Douglass 1818-1895
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Feb, 1818 Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on Holme Hill Farm, Easton, Talbot County, Maryland.
Feb 14, 1825 Douglass’ mother, Harriett Bailey, visits him for the final time. She dies shortly after.
Sep 3, 1838 Escapes from Maryland disguised as a sailor. His soon-to-be-wife, Anna Murray, raises the money for his escape by selling one of her feather beds.
“I didn’t know I was a slave until I found out I couldn’t do the things I wanted.”
Jun 24, 1839 Daughter Rosetta is born.
Oct 9, 1840 Son Lewis Henry is born.
Mar 3, 1842 Son Frederick, Jr. is born.
Oct 21, 1844 Son Charles Remond is born.
May 28, 1845 Douglass’ first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is published. It is an enormous success, which increases the chances of him being recaptured and returned to slavery.
Aug 16, 1845 Sets sail for England to remove himself from immediate danger.
Nov 24, 1846 Hugh Auld is informed the money has been raised, thanks in large part to the Richardsons of 5 Summerhill Grove.
Dec 12, 1846 Douglass becomes legally free in the United States when manumission papers are filed in Baltimore County Court.
Apr 20, 1847 Arrives back in Boston after nineteen months spent in Britain and Ireland.
Jul 19-20 1848 Participates in first women’s rights convention, Seneca Falls, New York.
He will continue to campaign for gender equality throughout his life.
Mar 22, 1849 Daughter Annie is born.
Jul 5, 1852 Delivers his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York.
Nov 12, 1859 Sets sail for second visit to England, again visiting Newcastle and spending time with the Richardsons.
Mar 13th, 1860 His ten-year-old daughter, Annie, dies. Douglass returns to Americas as soon as he gets the news.
Nov 17, 1864 Is reunited with his sister Eliza, whom he has not seen for thirty years.
Jul, 1867 Meets his brother Perry for first time in forty years.
May 11-12, 1872 Is the first African American to be nominated for Vice-President of the United States, but he does not accept the nomination.
Mar 17, 1877 Appointed U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia.
Aug 4, 1882 Anna, his wife of nearly forty-four years, dies.
Sep 1885 – Aug 1887 Travels with Helen on extended trip to England, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, and Greece. Douglass again visits his long-time friends Anna and Ellen Richardson in Newcastle.
Jul 26, 1892 Son Frederick, Jr. dies.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS INTERESTING FACTS
1. He was born in Talbot County, Maryland. As was the case with most slaves, he did not know the date of his birth. He chose February 14th, Valentine’s Day, because on his mother’s final visit he remembers her bringing him a heart-shaped cake and calling him her “little valentine.”
2. During his lifetime it was thought he was probably born in 1817, but records found after his death showed it was actually 1818. On this subject, he wrote “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”
3. He was originally called Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey but, after escaping slavery, he dropped his middle names and gave himself the new surname of Douglass, after a character in a poem called The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott.
4. Douglass knew the power of image and can be seen as an early “influencer” or a forefather of Instagram! He is said to be the most photographed American of the 19th-century and there are over 160 surviving portraits of him, more than Abraham Lincoln, George Custer, or Walt Whitman. Douglass fiercely managed and protected his image. He rarely smiled in photographs to counter the caricatured image of the “happy slave.” Instead he sternly looked into the camera with a dignified expression, demonstrating that black people were just as entitled to equality, respect and citizenship as their white peers
5. He was also ahead of his times in supporting gender equality. In 1848, he attended the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. He was the only African-American man to do so and he spoke persuasively in favour of a resolution for the women’s right to vote.
6. He campaigned for African Americans to be allowed to fight for their own freedom in the Civil War. He spoke with Abraham Lincoln on the issue at the White House. When black troops were eventually allowed to enlist, Douglass worked as a recruiter. Two of his sons, who were born free men, were among the first to sign up
7. Later in his life, Frederick Douglass held several high-ranking government posts, serving under five different US presidents. He was the first ever African American US Marshall and the first African American to be nominated for vice president of the United States. He was also the first African American to receive a vote for president at a major political party convention.
8. He has appeared in songs, poems, paintings, and novels, and on murals, street signs, postage stamps and coins.
10. He can still make headlines today. In February 2017, President Donald Trump appeared to believe that Frederick Douglass (who died in 1895) was still alive. At a Black History Month event, Trump said, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The descendants of Frederick Douglass released a gently mocking statement that read, “Like the President, we use the present tense when referencing Douglass’s accomplishments because his spirit and legacy are still very much alive, not just during Black History Month, but every month.”
11. There are numerous statues of Frederick Douglass throughout the United States but, as of yet, not a single one in Great Britain or Ireland (and we plan for the first to be here in Newcastle).
FREDERICK DOUGLASS QUOTES
1. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
2. “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
3. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
4. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
5. “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
6. “Some know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”
7. “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
8. “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.”
9. “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”
10. “The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.”
11. “Newcastle had a heart that could feel for three millions of oppressed slaves in the United States.”
12. “Without any suggestion from me they (Anna and Ellen Richardson of Summerhill Grove) bought me out of slavery, secured a bill of sale of my body, made a present of myself to myself and thus enabled me to return to the United States and resume my work for the emancipation of the slaves.”
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Abolition – The act of ending a practice or institution, in this case slavery.
Abolitionism – The movement to end slavery.
Emancipation – The act of freeing someone from another’s control, in this case from the slaveowners of the south.
Fugitive Slave Act – A law passed by congress on September 18th, 1850 that made it compulsory for the US government to assist slave-owners in recapturing fugitive slaves. Citizens, even in the free states, were also compelled to help capture runaway slaves. Abolitionists referred to it as the “Bloodhound Law” after the dogs that were used to track down runaways.