By Daniel Rose
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born a slave in the Pre-Civil War American south, but he lived to become a world-famous and internationally celebrated hero of the movements for all-inclusive civil rights for deprived minorities and for full political and civil rights for women.
Exposed to the alphabet at the age of 12 by his slave-owner’s wife (over her husband’s angry objections), Douglass secretly taught himself to read by associating with local school boys; and in due course he became an erudite and self-educated author, editor and social reformer who was acknowledged as among 19th century America’s most eloquent and impassioned orators.
In the absence of accurate genealogical records of slaves, Douglass was never certain of the year or date of his birth; but since his mother (who died young) referred to him as her “Little Valentine”, he assumed that February 14th was his birthday and he accepted 1818 as the year.
On September 3, 1838, Douglass successfully escaped bondage by boarding a northbound railway train, dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carrying identification papers he had obtained from a free black seaman. Within 24 hours, he arrived at the safe and welcoming home in New York City of David Ruggles, a prominent white abolitionist. (Douglass’s feelings on his liberation were described in his autobiography: “I felt as one might feel upon release from a den of hungry lions’.)
Shortly after achieving his freedom, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met and courted in Baltimore; and they soon established a home in New Bedford, Massachusetts (an abolitionist center of former slaves). In 1839, Douglass became a licensed preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an independent black denomination which counted among its members Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, prominent civil rights activists and leaders in the Underground Railroad that helped blacks escape from the south.
In 1843, Douglass joined other speakers in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, as six month national tour during which militant slavery supporters frequently heckled and accosted him. In Pendleton, Indiana, an angry mob beat him so badly that his hand was broken and never properly healed.
In 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography, an immediate bestseller that was translated into French and Dutch and was circulated throughout Europe. Later that year, he began a tour of Ireland and England, where he spent two years lecturing in churches and chapels to enthusiastic overflow crowds.
On returning to the U.S. in 1847, he stated his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, whose motto was “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren”. At this point, he and his wife became active in the Underground Railroad and they provided lodging and financial aid to more than four hundred escaped slaves.
In 1848, Douglass was the only black person to participate in the Seneca Falls Convention, the first national women’s rights event. At the outset, some attendees — leading Quakers among them – opposed the demand for immediate women’s suffrage; but after a rousing, fervent plea by Douglass, the vote was positive. And in 1852, Douglass’s address to the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, entitled “ What to a Slave is the Fourth of July ?”, was hailed as “perhaps the greatest anti-slavery address ever given”.
Constantly searching for new opportunities to press his case, Douglass consciously employed the newly-invented process of photography, and he was perhaps the most photographed single individual in 19th century America. He never smiled, so as not to advance the stereotype of the happy slave. His stern, unblinking visage conveyed a message that was not to be taken lightly. And his photograph was widely distributed.
On April 14, 1876 Douglass delivered a powerful keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, for which he received a standing ovation. Lincoln’s widow, Mary Lincoln, in appreciation, presented him with Lincoln’s favorite walking stick, which he used as a cane for the rest of his life.
In his later years, Douglass relentlessly pursued his activities on behalf of black education and equal opportunities for women; and he was actively involved in the construction of rental housing for poor blacks. Notable among these was Douglass Place, in the Falls Point area of Baltimore. The complex still exists, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Active until his end, Douglass wrote and spoke with passion.On February 20, 1895, he address a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, at which he received his usual ovation. On returning home, Douglass died of a massive heart attack, at the age of 77.
As distinct from the great W.E.B. Du Bois, who was primarily a brilliant writer, the Douglass impact was conveyed by his imposing physical presence and by the passion with which he challenged his audiences to live up to their own convictions and to the unmet promises in our Constitution.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poet whose work he admired, could have been referring to Frederick Douglass when he wrote:
“The lives of great men all remind us
We can make make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time “