Frederick Douglass, Father of Civil Rights

Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, c. February 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an internationally known African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman.  The son of a slave and an unknown white man, Douglass was taken from his mother at an early age and lived with his grandmother, Betty Bailey.  His mother died when Douglass was about ten.  At age seven, Douglass was separated from his grandmother and moved to the Wye House plantation.  Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld.  She sent Douglass to serve Thomas’ brother Hugh Auld in Baltimore.

When Douglass was about twelve years old, Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet, although it was illegal to teach slaves to read.  When Hugh Auld discovered her activity, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become aware of his position and want freedom.  Douglass later referred to this statement as the “first decidedly antislavery lecture” he had ever heard.  He continued, secretly, to teach himself how to read and write.  Douglass is noted as saying that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”  As Douglass began to read newspapers, political materials and books of every description, he was exposed to a new realm of thought that led him to question and condemn the institution of slavery.

In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore.  Her freedom strengthened his belief in the possibility of gaining his own freedom.  On September 3, 1838, Douglass escaped by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland.  He wore a sailor’s uniform he got from Murray.   Douglass carried identification papers which he had gotten from a free black sailor.

After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining popularity for his impeccable oratory and incisive antislavery writing.  He was an inherent contrast to the slave owners argument that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to be independent American citizens.  People close to Douglas feared the publicity would gain the attention of his former owner.  They encouraged Douglass to tour Ireland, like many other former slaves had done.   Douglass left on the Cambria for Liverpool on August 16, 1845.

Douglass spent two years in Ireland and Britain, where he gave many lectures in churches and chapels.  His speeches drew such a crowd that some facilities were “crowded to suffocation”; one example is the London Reception Speech at Alexander Fletcher’s Finsbury Chapel in May 1846.  Douglass said that in England he was treated not “as a color, but as a man.”  During his trip Douglass became legally free, British supporters raised money to buy his freedom from Thomas Auld.

“Nothing but an intense love of personal freedom keeps us [fugitive slaves] from the South,” ~ Douglass wrote in 1848.

Upon returning to the U. S., Douglass produced some abolitionist newspapers: The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The abolitionist newspapers were mainly funded by supporters in England.  In 1851, Douglass merged the North Star with Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party Paper to form Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which was published until 1860.

Douglass believed that education was the key for African Americans to improve their lives.   For this reason, he was an early advocate for desegregation of schools. In the 1850s, he was especially outspoken in New York. The facilities and instruction for African-American children were vastly inferior. Douglass criticized the situation and called for court action to open all schools to all children. He stated that inclusion within the educational system was a more pressing need for African Americans than political issues such as suffrage.

Douglass and other abolitionists argued that since the Civil War was to end slavery, African Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom.  He made his views known through newspapers and speeches. Douglass spoke with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and later with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.  Douglass fought for equality and made plans with Lincoln to move freed slaves out of the South.  During the war, Douglass served the Union as a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.  Based on his prominence and activism during the war, he was appointed to several political positions.  He served as president of the Reconstruction-era Freedman’s Savings Bank; and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic.  After two years, he resigned from his ambassadorship because of disagreements with U.S. government policy.

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