Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist, Author, Inspiration

We’re taking a look at the life of author, abolitionist, suffragist, and social reformer Frederick Douglass, whose legacy continues to inspire change today.

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Born “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” around 1818, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became a prominent activist and abolitionist before, during, and after the American Civil War.

Despite receiving minimal formal education, Douglass was also an accomplished public speaker and author. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which details his early life as an enslaved worker, is considered one of the most famous narratives written by a former slave. Douglass’ Narrative is not only an important piece of American literature that exposes, in detail, the true evil of man, but it is a testament to his unwavering courage in the face of adversity.

This is the first in a month-long series of articles celebrating influential black authors, so make sure to keep an eye out for our next piece!

Early Life

It is believed that Frederick Douglass was born in February of 1818. Though no one knows his exact birthdate, Douglass celebrated it on February 14. He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, as an infant and lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. Around the age of six he was moved away from Bailey to work at a plantation in Maryland, and around age seven his mother died.

Around the age of eight Douglass was sent to Baltimore to work as a house servant. It was there he first learned the alphabet. When a slave owner learned of this and put a stop to his lessons, Douglass continued to teach himself to read in secret, and in later years helped teach other enslaved people to read and write using the Bible.

frederick douglass portrait
IMAGE VIA YALE NEWS

In 1838 Douglass fled to New York City, and then Massachusetts. While moving to different cities he changed his name in order to evade slave hunters. Following a powerful speech at an 1841 anti-slavery convention, Douglass was launched into a career as an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He published Narrative in 1845, and then went on a two-year speaking tour of England and Ireland. He returned to the States with enough money to buy his freedom and began using his new platform to advocate for the freedom of all African Americans.

Advocacy and Writings

Throughout his life, Frederick Douglass advocated for the full rights of African Americans, becoming a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. Upon returning from speaking tour, Douglass founded and ran the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper which ran until 1860. He also became involved in the women’s rights movement and began including coverage of women’s rights issues within the North Star.

frederick douglass and abraham lincoln
IMAGE VIA LIBRARY OF AMERICA

During the American Civil War Douglass was a consultant to President Abraham Lincoln, and continued fighting for full civil rights of freedmen and supporting women’s rights during Reconstruction. He also held multiple government positions, including acting as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

In addition to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass he published two other autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

One of his most famous quotes occurred in 1852, when he gave his speech, “What to a slave is the 4th of July?” During it, he famously said, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

An Indelible Legacy

frederick douglass at his desk
IMAGE VIA NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, BRITANNICA PUBLISHING

Up until his death in 1895, Frederick Douglass remained a prominent speaker, writer, and activist. His career and works served as an inspiration for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Though almost 130 years have passed since his death, Frederick Douglass’ leadership, speeches, and writings live on and continue to inspire people today to fight for a future where everyone is equal, in the truest sense of the word.

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