Last week, we started our Black History Spotlight series with a brief overview on the life of teenage Civil Rights pioneer Claudette Colvin. Her name may not be as much of a household name as 13th Amendment hero Abraham Lincoln, but she’s just as important than any of our presidents. Today we’re shining a light on yet another unknown: Frederick Douglass. Here are 8 facts you need to know about one of the foremost abolitionists in American history.
/1/ 20 Years a Slave
Frederick Douglass was born a slave on a plantation in Maryland, and by the age of 7, was separated from his mother and sent to work at another plantation for the Auld family. When he was 12, his master’s wife secretly taught Frederick how to read, despite the fact it was against the law at the time. When his master found out, he forbid his wife to continue teaching him, but that only lit a fire within young Douglass. He taught himself how to read and write from the white kids in his neighborhood as well as the writings by his male co-workers. He used his new talent to teach other slaves how to read, but he also read newspapers and books about slavery, thus igniting his passion to end slavery.
After three failed attempts to escape from his plantation, Douglass finally left Maryland disguised as a free black sailor and ended up in New York City after a grueling 24 hour journey. He then married Anna Murray, a free black woman who helped him escape, and they settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
/2/ Abolish It
Douglass, now 23, quickly became a well-respected leader in the thriving free black community of New Bedford, mainly thanks to his leadership of the abolitionist movement to end slavery. It was then when he began his career as a renowned orator, speaking about his experience as a slave at local meetings, as well as the Hundred Conventions project, a tour throughout the East Coast and Midwest as a part of the American Anti-Slavery Society. However, it was his speeches that put him in danger of being captured by his former slave owners, so he fled across the pond to the U.K., where he continued to speak to people in Ireland and Britain against slavery. He spent two years in Europe telling them horrific slavery stories back in the U.S. In fact, the Brits were so moved by his story, that they raise 700 pounds to pay his master for his official freedom, officially making him a free man back at home.
/3/ Putting Pen To Paper
In 1845, he wrote his life story in an autobiography titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller in the U.S. and even overseas (thanks Irish & Brits), and they were so popular he went on to publish two more versions of his autobiography with new details in each one.
Upon his return to America, he settled in Rochester, New York (OUR HOMETOWN!), where he started The North Star anti-slavery newspaper, focusing on current events concerning abolitionist issues. Because one periodical wasn’t enough, Douglass went all in with the newspaper business, with Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era.
“Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The North Star motto
/4/ A Groundbreaking Feminist
Frederick was a staunch supporter of females during the women’s sufferage movement, and when the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY went down in 1948, he was the ONLY African-American to attend. It was at the convention that he spoke in favor of the assembly passing a resolution for women’s suffrage, saying he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also have the right to vote. His speech made such an impact that the resolution was ultimately passed.
/5/ Fought for Black Soldiers’ Right To Fight
By the time the Civil War started, Douglass was one of the most popular black men in the U.S. and he used his visibility to fight for African-Americans to fight in the war, on the basis that the aim of the Civil war was the end slavery. He even met with President Lincoln a few times after the South boasted they would execute or enslave any captured black soldiers. Due to Douglass’ persistence, Lincoln warned the Confederacy that for every Union soldier killed, he would execute a rebel soldier.
Nearly a decade after Lincoln’s death, Douglass spoke about the president’s legacy during the opening of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. While he called out Lincoln’s hesitance to speak out against slavery from the get-go, he also acknowledged he was ultimately a supporter of the anti-slavery cause.
“Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery….”
As a token of her appreciation, Mary Todd Lincoln gave Douglass the president’s favorite walking stick, which sits in Douglass’ final residence.
/6/ First African-American to be nominated for Vice President
In 1872, he was put on the Equal Rights Party ticket as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate. One problem – he had no idea he was nominated and he didn’t even campaign for it. As we know (or maybe not), they did not take the presidency.
/7/ Look at this photograph
Frederick Douglass with the most photographed American of the 19th Century, and stealthily made sure of it in an effort to advance his political views. He rarely smiled in his photographs, sending a message that he was not indulging in the racist stereotype of being a happy slave, and often looked into the lens with a stern look.
/8/ Rest In Peace
While there may be alternative facts swirling around out there, Mr. Douglass unfortunately passed away from a heart attack at his home in Washington a mere 122 years ago. He is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery, where people continue to pay their respects to this great man (check out video of a reporter from our local newspaper visiting Douglass last week). RIP.