Frederick Douglass

Short Biography on the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, born a slave, was the first African-American leader and abolitionist in American history (McElrath 2007, UXL Newsmakers 2005). He escaped from slavery and became a powerful anti-slavery advocate as well as an advocate for women's rights. These achievements and the various government positions he occupied after the Civil made his one of the most influential figures of the 19th century (McElrath).

Frederick Douglass was born in the eastern shore of Maryland on February 14, 1817, the date of his personal choice (UXL Newsmakers 2005, McElrath 2007). He was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and adopted the family name Douglass later on. His mother was Harriet Bailey, also a slave, with whom he had very little contact and from whom he was eventually separated. Harriet worked in a plantation in Tuckahoe in Maryland, which belonged to Aaron Anthony, who was probably Frederick's father. He grew up with his grandparents until he was 6. Harriet could visit him only occasionally because of the 12-mile journey she had to make each time from the plantation. Frederick was first sent to the Lloyd Plantation until he was sent to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. Sophia taught him the fundamentals of reading and writing until her husband stopped her. Those first inputs were all he needed to embark on his own. He drew his motivation from what he overheard from Hugh as saying that teaching reading and writing to Blacks would make them lose their value to white men. He realized that the inability to read enslaved the Blacks to white men and that the road to freedom was, therefore, to learn how to read (UXL Newsmakers, McElrath).

His determination to break free from the bondage of slavery led him to take advantage of every chance to learn to read. He learned reading and writing from white playmates and other people in the street, sometimes exchanging the learning with bread (McElrath 2007). In 1838, he impersonated an African-American sailor and escaped to New York (UXL Newsmakers 2005). There, he assumed the new family name, Douglass, and married Ann Murray, a free African-American woman from the South. They lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts where they had several children. At the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society annual convention in 1841, Douglass was so inspired by the anti-slavery speech of William Lloyd Garrison that he delivered his own. He revealed his own experience of slavery as characterized by an extreme want of personal warmth, lack of family attachment, arduous labor and regular scenes of incredible inhumanity at the plantation of Col. Edward Lloyd (UXL Newsmakers). His account was so powerful and eloquent that Garrison prodded him to continue. Douglass speech was so impressive that he was immediately hired as a lecturer by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (McElrath). Some students from Harvard were so inspired by Douglass' self-styled, self-taught prose and way of speaking so inspired that they encouraged him to writing his autobiography. His autobiography, "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" was published in 1845. An enlarged version was published 10 years later and re-entitled into "My Bondage and My Freedom." A third autobiography was published in 1881 under the title, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass." This was also enlarged in another version in 1892. The first autobiography won him both fame and exile as a fugitive slave. In order avoid capture, he fled to and stayed in Britain from 1845 to 1847 during which he continued to advocate for abolition and to earn money to return to America (McElrath).

Upon his return, he settled in Rochester, New York where he began to publish his own weekly newspaper, "The North Star in 1847 (McElrath 2007, UXL Newsmakers 2005). His fame and role as unofficial spokesman for African-Americans, Douglas was the pursuit of John Brown for his planned siege of the Harpers Ferry arsenal. But Douglass refused to participate in John Brown's…