Born: February 1817 (exact date uncertain) Died: February 20, 1895
Frederick Douglass once told a group of African-American students from a school in Talbot County, Maryland, the following:
What was possible for me is possible for you. Do not think because you are colored you cannot accomplish anything. Strive earnestly to add to your knowledge. So long as you remain in ignorance, so long will you fail to command the respect of your fellow men.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to a slave mother and a white father he never knew, Frederick Douglass grew up to become a leader in the abolitionist movement and the first black citizen to hold high rank (as U.S. minister and consul general to Haiti) in the U.S. government.
Douglass’s Escape from Slavery
Douglass described his daring escape on a train ride from Baltimore to Philadelphia in his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). For the journey, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor wearing a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck. He also had to be able to talk like a sailor. “My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt.’ ”
Along with the other black passengers, Douglass had to show his “free papers”—a document proving he was free and could travel—along with his ticket. Because Douglass was a runaway slave, he didn’t have free papers. Instead, he had borrowed what was called a Seaman’s Protection Certificate, which proved that a sailor was a citizen of the U.S.
Douglass described his nervousness when the conductor came by to collect tickets and look over papers.
This is how the conversation went when the conductor reached Douglass in the crowded train car. “I suppose you have your free papers?” “No sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me.” “But you have something to show that you are a freeman, haven’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I have a paper with the American eagle on it, and that will carry me around the world.”
A quick glance at the paper satisfied the conductor. He took Douglass’s fare and went on to the other passengers. This moment was one of the most anxious Douglass had ever experienced.
If the conductor had looked closely, he would have noticed that Douglass did not match the description of the person on the form and he would have been required to send Douglass back to slavery in Baltimore. Not only would this have been terrible for Douglass but also the friend, from whom he had borrowed the Seaman’s Certificate, would have been in serious trouble. Later, when Douglass wrote his first autobiography in 1845, he didn’t include the way in which he escaped because some of the people who had helped him could have gotten into trouble. By the time Douglass wrote his revised autobiography in 1881, he included the real description of his daring escape.
Frederick Douglass—Abolitionist Leader
After Douglass escaped, he wanted to promote freedom for all slaves. He published a newspaper in Rochester, New York, called The North Star. It got its name because slaves escaping at night followed the North Star in the sky to freedom. Douglass’s goals were to “abolish slavery in all its forms and aspects, promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the COLORED PEOPLE, and hasten the day of FREEDOM to the Three Millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”
In addition to publishing The North Star, Douglass lectured on the subject of freedom. Even though he had made a name for himself and was a successful leader in the abolitionist movement, he was still subject to laws keeping blacks separate from whites.
On one occasion, he took the train to speak in a southern city. During the journey, he was forced to sit in the section reserved for “colored” people at the end of the freight car. When his hosts met him at the other end, they were very apologetic that he had been humiliated and made to sit in the back of the car. His response was: “Gentlemen, by ignoble actions I may degrade myself, but nothing and no man can degrade Frederick Douglass.”
Frederick Douglass was known for his ability to speak and inspire a crowd, but he wasn’t always confident talking in front of an audience. His very first public speech was in 1841 at the church of the Reverend Thomas James, who asked Douglass to speak about his experiences as a slave. At first, Douglass was nervous and shy, but as he went on, he became surer of himself and his speaking skills. After that experience, he went in front of crowds on numerous occasions to speak out against slavery.
Douglass kept company with other abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Owen Lovejoy. He also spoke in favor of women’s rights and worked alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.
Douglass’s Role in the Civil War
African Americans were ready and willing to fight in the Civil War, but President Lincoln and Union leaders were not sure how they felt about enlisting black troops. By 1860, Douglass was well known for his efforts to end slavery and his skill at public speaking. During the Civil War, Douglass was a consultant to President Abraham Lincoln. He helped to convince Lincoln that slaves should serve in the Union forces and that the abolition of slavery should be a goal of the war.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; it clearly stated that Confederate slaves were now free and that they could serve in the Union army. By the end of the war, about 186,000 African-American men had enlisted. Douglass also worked as a recruiter in several regions of the country signing up African Americans to serve in the Union army.
Douglass recruited his sons, Charles and Lewis, who both joined the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment. This army unit was made up of black volunteers who fought a bitter battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July 1863.
1. How did Frederick Douglass’s knowledge of ships help him to escape from slavery?
a. Douglass sailed away from the slave catchers.
b. In the attempt to escape, Douglass was able pass himself off as a sailor.
c. Douglass could use his skills as a sailor to help guide slave fugitives.
d. He was hired as a sailor and was able to buy his freedom.
2. Why would the Seaman’s Protection Certificate carried by Frederick Douglass have gotten another man in trouble?
a. Douglass had borrowed the certificate from a friend.
b. He needed specific free papers.
c. The certificate was a fake.
d. The name and the description on the certificate were Douglass’s.
3. What was the title of Douglass’s abolitionist paper?
a. For The Improvement of Colored People
b. The North Star
d. The Free Paper
4. What did Douglass mean when he said, “ . . . by ignoble actions I may degrade myself, but nothing and no man can degrade Frederick Douglass”?
a. Many people would try to belittle him, but they would fail.
b. It was difficult to harm a public figure like Frederick Douglass.
c. Riding on the back of the train was a trivial matter.
d. Only Frederick Douglass could humiliate himself.
5. Which of the following describes one way that Frederick Douglass influenced the president during the Civil War?
a. He was able to convince the president to integrate blacks in the army.
b. He told Lincoln to allow the blacks to remain in the free states.
c. He was able to help convince Lincoln to enlist black troops for the Union.
d. He helped the president convince Congress to abolish slavery.
6. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was a
a. black army unit.b.fugitive hideout.c. search and rescue unit.d.group of Confederate volunteers.
7. Choose one event or theme in Frederick Douglass’s life that you found especially interesting. Explain why it was important and how it affected people’s thinking about slavery.