Frederick Douglass became the leading spokesman of his time for the abolition of slavery and for racial equality.
Douglass was born in February of 1818 in Maryland. He was the son of a slave but spent most of his formative years with his grandparents. Spending much of his time cold and hungry and witnessing first hand the brutality of slavery, Douglass learned lessons he would never forget.
At the age of eight Douglass received a respite from his hard life by being sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter. Douglass says the experience of living with Hugh Auld "laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity." Not because of Auld's gentle treatment, far from it. Auld was no gentleman to work for, but his wife helped teach Douglass to read before her husband intervened and stopped the lessons.
Douglass had not witnessed the end of his troubles. Years later he was sent back to a farm to slave. At the farm he received daily whippings and was barely given enough food to keep him alive. Along with other slaves he often felt broken in body and spirit.
His first efforts at escape were discovered and he was jailed when his plans were uncovered. He was sent back to Baltimore and eventually, disguised as a seaman, Douglass escaped from his bondage on September 3, 1838 .
He eventually settled in Massachusetts with a wife he had met in Baltimore and married in New York. Despite being afraid that too much activity may lead to his recapture, Douglass joined Abolitionist organizations and attended meetings. He became enthralled with the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass gave a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that led to his becoming a lecturer for the society and launched his career as a great Abolitionist.
Douglass published his autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," in 1845. Douglass tells in the narrative about his love of learning and his calling to his work.
"My desire to learn increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. I have gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street-gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I might get a word or two of wisdom from them. While thus religiously seeking knowledge, I became acquainted with a good old colored man named Charles Lawson....(who)told me that the Lord had great work for me to do, and I must prepare to do it; that he had been shown that I must preach the gospel."
To stay out of reach of the fugitive slave laws, he travelled the world telling of his life. Upon returning to the states a couple of years later Douglass would start the first black newspaper with backing he had received from wealthy Europeans. This did not make his old friend Garrison happy because Garrison had a paper of his own.
There were other disagreements with Garrison. Unlike his mentor, Douglass did not believe the Constitution to be a pro-slavery document. His insistence that the Union did not have to be dissolved to resolve the slavery issue led to a bitter dispute with Garrison.
War would come nonetheless and Douglass would continue his active involvement to better the lives of African-Americans. His paper's attack on Abraham Lincoln eventually led to Douglass becoming the first black man to have a private audience with a president. Douglass believed Lincoln had been ambivalent on the issue of slavery. Douglass came to believe that Lincoln found slavery to be morally wrong but that Lincoln's main goal was the preservation of the Union at all costs. With Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass encouraged blacks to enlist in the Union Army. Two of his sons joined the heroic 54th Massachusetts Infantry. But black soldiers were not treated the same as white soldiers especially when it came to pay and Douglass broached the subject with the president.
Lincoln sought Douglass's advice on several occasions. Once, afraid of what would happen when he was no longer president, Lincoln wanted Douglass to help bring slaves from the South to the North. The plan was agreed to but was never needed because of the growing success of the Union Army.
After the war Douglass continued to work on behalf of African-Americans. He received opprobrium from the black community however, for his marriage to his white secretary (whom he had married after the death of his first wife).
In an interesting twist of fate, Douglass was called back to the bedside of one of his former slave owners Hugh Auld. Douglass wrestled with what he should do but remembered the kindness of Mrs. Auld and returned to the dying man's side. This typified the character of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass took a posts as Marshal of the District of Columbia, city recorder of deeds, and Minister to Haiti in his later years. His death befitted a great orator. After giving a speech on February 20, 1895 Douglass died of a heart attack.
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