Born into slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass became the most significant African-American leader of the 19th century. Son of field hand Harriet Bailey and an unnamed white man (perhaps his first master, Aaron Anthony), Douglass became a powerful antislavery orator, newspaper publisher, backer of women’s suffrage, adviser to Abraham Lincoln, banker, and diplomat.
When he was about seven, Douglass’s mother died, and her child, then called Frederick Bailey, was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives of the family on whose plantation he was raised.
Sophia, in violation of law and custom, began to teach the youngster to read; her husband instructed Frederick in shipyard skills that would eventually prove his passage to freedom. As Douglass wrote, “A city slave is almost a freeman compared with a slave on the plantation.”
Family deaths, remarriages, and disputes over slave “property” threw Douglass’s almost tolerable life into chaos. Underfed and cruelly treated, sent to a remote area near Chesapeake Bay, he was hired out to be “broken” into an obedient field hand.
After several unsuccessful escape attempts, in September 1838 he made his way to New York City and thence, with help from abolitionists and his future wife, free woman Anna Murray, to the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Douglass would write three autobiographies that remain a key source of information about his life and thought. The first of these, his Narrative, published in 1845 when Douglass was still a fugitive, galvanized the American antislavery movement and forced Douglass into exile in Britain, where he lectured to huge crowds.
He returned to the United States in 1847 after English supporters paid $700 to secure his freedom. Douglass soon started a freedom newspaper, North Star, and resumed his work as an abolition orator.
He delivered his most famous speech in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” he asked. “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. To him, your celebration is a sham....”
In 1848 Douglass attended the meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, that launched the drive for equal rights for women. Douglass would later fall out with important members of the women’s suffrage movement over the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that, in 1870, would grant voting rights to male former slaves while still excluding women of all races.
During the Civil War, Douglass helped convince President Lincoln to allow blacks to fight for the Union and publicly urged free blacks and escaped slaves to enlist. More than 200,000 did so, paving the way for full citizenship at the war’s end.
Douglass’s later years in Washington, D.C., mixed achievement and disappointment. He held a number of federal positions, including a posting to Haiti, but his participation in a Freedmen’s Savings Bank ended badly. His remarriage to a white woman was condemned by both whites and blacks.
He lived to see the emergence of new racial restrictions, suffering some of their indignities himself. Dying of a heart attack on February 20, 1895, after attending a women’s rights meeting, Douglass lay in state in a Washington, D.C., church. He is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery.