Frederick Douglass

One of the most interesting and inspiring authors I came across to date is Frederick Douglass. He was a former slave who escaped from Maryland to New York and became a public speaker a Public Speaker,  Author, Editor, Abolitionist and Civil Servant. He campaigned extensively for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.

Here are some key facts;

  • Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1817/18  – Died in 1895
  • Mixed race: mother was an enslaved black women, father white, rumoured to be one of his masters.
  • After a Failed attempt in 1837,  Escaped in 1838 to the North, New York
  • Delivered a first hand account during his speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society about his life as a slave
  • White abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and others (The Garrisonians) enlisted him as an anti-slavery platform speaker. He became a devotee of the Garrisons newspaper The Liberator.
  • Published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave 1845
  • Still a runaway slave and could be recaptured under the Fugitive Slave Act 1793.
  • So in 1845 spends 21 month tour of England, Ireland and Scotland.
  • Difference of opinion and campaigning style with the Garrisonians. Felt they were not powerful enough, or doing enough. They relied on moral persuasion where they just wanted him to narrate his experiences, rather than denounce them and push forward a political angle.
  • 1846 gains his freedom when English friends the Richardson’s pay £150 to his former master Hugh Auld
  • Joined the Liberty Party in 1847 and the Free soil Party in 1848.
  • Launched own newspaper,  The North Star , 1847 in New York
  •  “Civil servant, serving from 1876 to 1877 as US marshal for the District of Columbia, in 1881 as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and from 1889 to 1891 as minister and counsel general to Haiti”
  • Published My Bondage and My Freedom  1855
  • Published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass 1881
  • Distinguished career following the publication of My Bondage and My Freedom, continued to lecture on equality, freedom and justice

“When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly a woman’s cause.” [Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,1881]

He was a campaigner of women’s rights and a strong supporter of the suffragette movement

No doubt the awful human rights violations and atrocities committed against women he witnessed first-hand while in slavery contributed greatly to his feelings about this issue.

Douglass never knew his mother; he was raised in his very early life by his grandmother while his mother was put to hard labour on the plantation. He himself was put to work at a very young age. His first autobiography discusses his time as a salve, his escape and how he identifies as a former slave while speaking publicly about his experiences.

He married Anna Murray who provided him with the stable family life he never knew as a child. They had five children and were married for 44 years until her death in 1882

Anna Murray Douglass, married for 44 years, portrait c. 1860

Some facts about their marriage;

Often seen as the women behind the legacy, Frederick’s First Wife  – Anna Murray Douglass, married in 1827 for 44 years until her death  in 1882

Born in 1813 – Anna was a free women who originally came from the same place as Frederick (Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland).. New each others families . Seventh child born to Bambarra and mary Murray, both slaves. As her mother was released from slavery, Anna was born free (79).

She moved to Baltimore to find work as a housekeeper. Only low wages, as many “ black women struggled for domestic-service positions in white peoples homes” (Blight 80). Saved money, bought goods, later sold them to buy Frederick a train ticket to escape slavery (Blight 80)

After arriving in New York, he sent for Anna who later joined him. Life difficult: although a free state under the fugitive slave act 1793 slaves were returned to their owners, even if in a free state.

Once escaped from slavery in Baltimore and  arrived safely in New York they were sheltered by Mr Ruggles (secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee and involved with the underground railroad.)

Married by rev. James Pembroke

Had 5 children

Marriage cert printed in narrative: evidence of such “ a human and liberating act as marriage on free soil” (Blight 85).

Moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Stayed with Nathan and Mary Johnson who urged them to change names. Did not include Anna in decision. Wanted to retain identity so kept Frederick. So Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey became Frederick Douglass, his wife Anna Murray Douglass.

Rarely accompanied him to speeches while on the road,

Life  of drudgery, hard work, on her knees scrubbing floors, rearing children, keeping house alone while Douglass was away all the time. However, he under estimated her because she was a frugal with money, earning enough from taking in sewing to keep the family and household going while her husband was away.

Other women actually lived in their household while married to Anna including fugitive slave Ruth Cox, later to become Harriot Baily, which was Frederick’s mothers name

Fugitive slave Ruth Cox arrives, after meeting  in 1844 while on tour in Pennsylvania.stays with Anna while Douglass away- link to his family as Anna could not read or write,  she was a women he needed for family cohesion, help rearing his children, companion to Anna. He would write long letters and Ruth to read them to Anna over and over until she understood them. He thanked er for her devotion to his children, anna and to him. Although he promised Ruth “a brothers love and a father’s care” (165)., his role toward her is unclear: when she married Douglass was not happy. Ruth changed her name to Harriot Baily and became a sort of sister to Douglass. He may of mistaken her for his own sister at first, Eliza, not seen since 1836 (163). She was one of the women Douglass would move into the material home. Crucial metator in the difficult marriage. He writes intimate letters to her when he is depressed often returning to slave quarter language “. Talks about his depression to her, buying a fiddle to cope with it, and needing her “sisterly hand” (165). Lectures and berates her when she intends to marry.  It is thought she may have been the literate women he wished he had brought with him rather than the illiterate Anna( Blight).

Also Julia Grittiths, an educated white English women who worked on his newspaper, The North Star with him

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and her sister Eva. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1884 he married his former secretary, Helen Pitts. She was an educated white women, and he proved a scandal. Some facts;

Her family cut her off, never to reconcile

A lot of discrimination and intrusion into their private lives

Would accompany him on all his speaking tours, including to England and Europe

Well known for her role in preserving his memory and fighting for suffrage.

Blight, David, W. Frederick Douglas. Prophet of Freedom. Simon and Schuster.2018.

Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Edited and Introduced by  John David Smith. Penguin Books.2003.

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