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Frederick Douglass sits in the pantheon of Black history figures: Born into slavery, he made a daring escape north, wrote best-selling autobiographies and went on to become one of the nation’s most powerful voices against human bondage. He stands as the most influential civil and human rights advocate of the 19th century.
Perhaps his greatest legacy? He never shied away from hard truths.
Because even as he wowed 19th-century audiences in the U.S. and England with his soaring eloquence and patrician demeanor, even as he riveted readers with his published autobiographies, Douglass kept them focused on the horrors he and millions of others endured as enslaved American: the relentless indignities, the physical violence, the families ripped apart. And he blasted the hypocrisy of a slave-holding nation touting liberty and justice for all.
He wanted to rouse the nation's conscience—and expose its hypocrisy
Douglass’s voluminous writings and speeches reveal a man who believed fiercely in the ideals on which America was founded, but understood—with the scars to prove it—that democracy would never be a destination of comfort and repose, but a journey of ongoing self-criticism and struggle. He knew it when he lobbied relentlessly to abolish slavery. And he knew it after Emancipation, when he continued to battle for equal rights under the law.
Indeed, Douglass knew, as he argued so ardently in his famed 1852 July Fourth speech, that for democracy to thrive, the nation’s conscience must be roused, its propriety startled and its hypocrisy exposed. Not once, but continually and for the good of the nation, he argued, we must bring the “thunder.”
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham…your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings…are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages... There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him... Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder... The...conscience of the nation must be roused...the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.
Douglass’s extraordinary life and legacy can be understood best through his autobiographies and his countless articles and speeches. But they weren't his only activities. He also published an abolitionist newspaper for 16 years...supported the Underground Railroad by which enslaved people escaped north...became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States during roll call at the 1888 Republican National Convention...and even was known to play America’s national anthem on the violin.
Underpinning it all was his relentless process of self-education—a theme that runs throughout Douglass’s life story.
READ MORE: Frederick Douglass's Emotional Meeting with the Man Who Enslaved Him
Education, abuse and escape
Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass, like many enslaved children, was separated from his mother at birth; he resided with his loving maternal grandmother until he turned seven.
At the age of eight, he became a servant in the home of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. In defiance of the codes that explicitly forbade teaching enslaved people how to read, Mrs. Auld taught Douglass the alphabet, unlocking the gateway to education—which he would extol the rest of his life. Over time Douglass surreptitiously continued to teach himself to read and write, all the while strengthening his resolve to escape the confines of slavery. He defied the law in not only learning to read and write, but in teaching other enslaved people to do so. As he observed: “Some know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”
In the early 1830s, Douglass was shipped to the plantation of Hugh’s brother Thomas. In an effort to break his spirit, Thomas loaned Douglass to Edward Covey, a sadistic local slave master with a reputation for cruelty. Covey mercilessly beat and abused the teenager until one day Douglass decided to fight back, knocking Covey to the ground. Covey, tempered, never mentioned the encounter, but he also never laid hands on him again.
As for Douglass, he called the battle with Covey “the turning point” in his life as an enslaved person: “It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me my own sense of manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
In September of 1838 Douglass, disguised as a sailor and with borrowed free papers, managed to board a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He continued on to New York and ultimately, New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he settled, a free man. He married Anna Murray, a free woman of color who he had met and fallen in love with while in bondage in Baltimore. The couple had five children. The Douglasses made a commitment to eradicating the evil of slavery.
READ MORE: How Frederick Douglass Escaped Slavery
The authoritative voice of Abolition
After speaking at an anti-slavery meeting in 1841, Douglass met William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leading proponents calling for an immediate end to slavery. The two became friends and with Garrison’s support, Douglass became one of the most sought-after speakers on the abolitionist circuit, not only for his searing testimony but his powerful oratory. In time, he lent his voice to the emerging women’s-rights movement as well. He once reflected: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
In 1845, Douglass committed his story to print, publishing the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, with the support of Garrison and other abolitionists. The book gained international acclaim, confounding critics who argued that such fluid writing and penetrating thought could not be the product of a Black mind. Nevertheless, the Narrative catapulted Douglass to success outside the ranks of reformers, stoking fears that his celebrity might result in attempts by Auld to reclaim the man he had enslaved. To avoid this fate, Douglass traveled to England, where he remained for two years until a group of supporters there successfully negotiated payment for his freedom.
READ MORE: What Frederick Douglass Revealed—and Omitted—in His Famous Autobiographies
Back in the United States, Douglass navigated the tumultuous decade of the 1850s, steering a course between extremists like John Brown, who believed the only way to abolish slavery was through armed insurrection, and old friends like Garrison. Douglass published his own newspaper, The North Star. On the masthead, he inserted the motto “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren,” incorporating both Douglass’s anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights views.
On the eve of the Civil War, Douglass used his fame and influence to petition the Lincoln Administration to press for emancipation. As he remarked: “The thing worse than the rebellion is the thing that causes the rebellion.” He further demanded that the Union allow Black men to enlist and aided the war effort by promoting recruitment.
Without struggle, he learned, there is no progress
Despite the hope engendered by the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery following the war, Douglass remained cautious, observing: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.” Over the course of the next few years, he remained a strong voice advocating for the passage of additional legislation to ensure absolute equality for Black people. By the end of the decade, however, he was also painfully aware of the mounting efforts to suspend Reconstruction and return Black people to a state of quasi-slavery—measures he continued to fight. His experience had taught him: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”
Douglass died on February 20, 1895. While his life mapped the triumphant journey from slavery to freedom, the seeds of division had already been sown on the eve of his death. Three years earlier, Homer Plessy challenged Louisiana’s law that required “all railway companies [to] provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races,” leading to the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision upholding racial segregation. In spite of the failure of Reconstruction and the assault on Black equality, Douglass had still remained hopeful of a different outcome.
Of all the inspiring things to be recovered in Douglass life, his work in pursuit of social justice remains the most compelling. An uncompromising critic of American hypocrisy rather than American democracy, his critique was anchored much more in what could be.
Far from “slandering Americans” as he called it, Douglass appealed to them to remember the oppression that led to revolution, the desire for liberty that fueled its leaders and the vigilance necessary to maintain freedom. He warned against the denial of the most basic of human rights and the betrayal of revolutionary values in thoughts and actions.
That, today, is perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from Douglass’s life. We would do well to acknowledge his daring escape from slavery, powerful oratory, leadership on civil and women’s rights. But we shouldn't separate that from his ultimate message, which compelled us to be better—and more vocal—in the messy, ongoing process of pursuing social justice and perfecting our democracy. That, he believed, is what would make America great.
Yohuru Williams, an American academic, author and activist, serves as Distinguished University Chair, Professor and Founding Director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.
The FIRST in a Series of FIVE Essays Celebrating Black History Month
The only people who want to preserve the status quo are those benefiting from it. The rest of us must fight to be heard. From the Boston Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, social unrest and civil disobedience have been effective tools for change. But how far is too far? One such man who struck the balance of social agitator and statesman was a freed slave named Frederick Douglass. Here is his story…
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born to a Maryland slave named Harriet Baily. The exact date of his birth is unknown. Later in life, however, he chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14, born in the year, 1818.
Douglass was of mixed race, which likely included Native American and African on his mother's side and Caucasian on his father’s side, even though the identity of his father was not truly known. But he was rumored to be the child of his mother’s slave owner.
It seemed that throughout his life Frederick Douglass was not going to accept things as they were. He was destined to challenge the status quo. Like he had done when choosing his own birthday, he later changed his surname to Douglass and dropped his two middle names altogether, preferring to be known simply as Frederick Douglass.
It was a common custom of slave owners to separate children from their mothers at an early age. For this reason, Douglass hardly remembered his mother. Most of his childhood was spent living with his grandmother, Betty Baily. When he was 12 years old, he was taken from his grandmother and passed along to various plantations, ending up serving Hugh Auld, an aristocrat in Baltimore.
Hugh’s wife Sophia was a kind-hearted woman and taught young Frederick the alphabet. Convinced by her husband that teaching slaves to read would encourage rebellion, Sophia stopped the tutelage. But it was too late. Young Frederick had learned just enough to feed his hunger for more. He increased his reading skills by reading anything he could get his hands on. In a day when it was illegal to teach slaves to read, Douglass challenged the system by reading pamphlets, newspapers and mostly, the Bible. Any books he read were borrowed from white children be befriended in the neighborhood.
As Douglass’ reading skills grew, he defied the existing status quo by teaching other slaves how to read. He did this in a weekly Sunday school class as they read the Bible together. At first, the slave owners were ambivalent towards these gatherings until their numbers grew from 3 or 4 attendees to several dozen. After about six months, the slave owners became alarmed. Bursting into the Sunday school class armed with clubs and knives, they ended the meetings for good and dispersed the slaves. Their young Sunday school teacher was sent to work for another plantation where he would be taught the proper place of a Southern slave.
Edward Covey had a reputation for breaking slaves. His ruthless beatings were legendary. Sure to his reputation, Covey beat Douglass relentlessly. During this time, he nearly broke his spirit, flogging away any dreams of freedom Douglass may have harbored. However, the iron determination of this sixteen-year-old slave was greater than the beatings he received. One day, Douglass fought back and nearly ended the life of his tormentor. Covey never beat him again.
Douglass would carry this lesson with him the rest of his life. Knowing that those who benefit from the status quo are unlikely to change it, he understood that change could only happen through the audacity of those willing to challenge it. Douglass understood that the struggle for emancipation and equality demanded tenacious, and consistent agitation.
A year after Douglass began working for Covey, he met Anna Murray, a freedwoman living in Boston. The two fell in love. Her status as a free black woman gave Douglass hope of gaining his freedom someday. Together they hatched a plan to make it happen. On September 3, 1838, Douglass escaped the planation by boarding a train in Baltimore using a sailor’s uniform purchased by Murray and forged identification papers they received from a free black seaman. The train gave way to a steamboat at the Delaware River where transport was purchased to Philadelphia.
Once in Philadelphia, Douglass sent for his beloved Anna to join him. They journeyed to New York where they were married on September 15, 1838. Afterward, they moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there that they both agreed to adopt the surname, “Douglass” after the primary character of “The Lady of the Lake.” True to his nature, Douglass was determined to create his own identity with his own plan of action. This desire soon became a passion to help other slaves enjoy the freedom and self-determination that he discovered.
No doubt drawing from his time as a Sunday school teacher in slavery, Douglass became a licensed preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1839, an independent black denomination headquartered in New York City. A born orator, he was given numerous opportunities to speak in churches and eventually, his skills gave him a platform at emancipation gatherings. He became a strong proponent of the Northern Abolitionist Movement during this time. His abilities as an orator and his commitment to emancipation gave him the necessary tools to challenge the status quo of an entire nation and change history in the process.
Douglass was greatly inspired by the anti-slavery positions of William Lloyd Garrison as expressed in his weekly journal, “The Liberator.” Douglass first met Garrison at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society. Later, Garrison invited him to speak at a rally to tell his personal story of the horrors of slavery. The audience remained spellbound throughout the entire speech. Seeing his extraordinary communication skills, Garrison enlisted Douglass to become an anti-slavery lecturer. At the age of 23, Douglass was propelled onto the national stage. Moving his audiences to tears with his anti-slavery speeches, many people considered him to be one of the greatest orators of all time.
Not everyone was keen on this former slave’s call to end slavery, however. During his “Hundred Conventions Project,” a six-month barnstorming tour across the Midwest, slavery supporters frequently attacked Douglass. In Pendleton, Indiana, an angry mob publically beat Douglass mercilessly. He was eventually rescued by a local Quaker family, but not until his hands were broken in the brutal attack.
Douglass's autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was published in 1845. The book was so well written that skeptics questioned whether a black man could have produced such an eloquent piece of literature. The book received raving reviews and became an immediate bestseller. It was reprinted nine times, selling 11,000 copies in the United States. Many historians credit Douglass’ book with helping fan the flames of abolitionism in the North.
As an innovator, Douglass was convinced of the power of photography. He employed this new technology to challenge the apathy of many people in the North. If people could see the images they had heard about in rallies, he reasoned, their opinions against slavery would be galvanized. He was right. Using photography to agitate the American conscience, his political views became an unstoppable force for change in his generation.
After the Civil War, Douglass continued to work for equality for African-Americans and women’s voting rights for 20 more years. Because of his notoriety as a civil rights advocate, he encouraged President Ulysses S. Grant to enforce Federal Law in the South after the Civil War. Using Union troops as a police force over 5,000 arrests were made. Grant's determination in disrupting the Ku Klux Klan was both encouraged and applauded by Douglass.
Why Frederick Douglass Was the Father of the Civil Rights Movement
More than two centuries after the birth of Frederick Douglass, few men or women have come close to achieving his skills as both an orator and an agent of change. "Why we should remember him is because of what he represents to us even today. His ability to not only to speak truth to power but do so in such an eloquent way that he would challenge anyone who stands against him," says Pellom McDaniels, III, curator of African American Collections at Emory University's Rose Library. The power of Douglass' voice contributed greatly to the end of slavery, expansion of the right to vote and the general push toward equal rights for all that continues still.
So, where did Douglass get that power? Born in 1818 as Frederick Bailey, he was a slave on the coast of Maryland. He recognized the value of literacy from an early age, and so he taught himself to read and write. He was hired out from age 8 to 15 as a body servant, and rebelled when his owner sent him to work in the fields. After a failed escape effort, he was sent back to Baltimore where he connected with Anna Murray, a free black woman. She helped him coordinate his escape and funded his train ticket, and as a result, he was able to make a break for New York City dressed as a sailor, where he was "free," but a fugitive, nonetheless.
Frederick married Anna, and the pair took the surname Douglass, in an effort to keep from being captured. They relocated to Bedford, Massachusetts, and eventually had five children.
Making a Legend
Douglass' thirst for freedom didn't end with his own. He began attending abolitionist meetings where he quickly gained a reputation as a gifted speaker and writer and toured on behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Ironically some of these same abolitionists thought him too well-versed and educated to have been raised a slave. By being so educated they felt he was, "pushing back against the myth of blackness," McDaniels says. "To argue his case and support his case they felt that he had to be not on equal footing [with whites]."
To prove his legitimacy, in 1845 he published the first of three tomes, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." The ensuing publicity made him a target, however, and he had to spend time in Europe to prevent being re-enslaved. His freedom was eventually bought on his behalf by kind abolitionists, and he moved with his family to Rochester, New York, to enjoy life as a free black man.
Civil Rights and Women's Rights
Douglass continued speaking on behalf of the abolition of slavery but also took an interest in women's rights. "He believed that there should be equality across the board," McDaniels says, adding that despite his support of women's suffrage, he wanted it to come in time. "One of the things he argued against was women getting the right to vote first [before black men]. By excluding black men from this equation, it put black men and women in great danger."
While some abolitionists decried the United States Constitution as pro-slavery, Douglass eventually decided that the document was not, and had been conveniently misinterpreted by people who stood to benefit. In his most famous speech "What to the Slave is 4th of July?" he said, "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"
"He saw there was more to the Constitution than was gleaned," McDaniels explains. "He also saw the elements of it that allowed for individuals in the country to be free and pursue the possibilities."
He argued that the idea of universal human brotherhood, that all were created equal, was rooted in Christianity and the Bible. He also maintained that blacks are children of God, and therefore not "subhuman" as argued by many detractors, themselves often devout Christians.
Although Douglass disagreed with the militant ideals of fellow abolitionist John Brown, he eventually came to see that federal military intervention (realized in the form of the devastating Civil War) would be necessary to eradicate slavery.
He aggressively worked to influence the Republican Party, which featured a particularly famous member in President Abraham Lincoln, to prevent slavery's spread into new territories, to attack laws that protected slaveholders and to generally encourage abolitionism. He eventually called Lincoln a friend, and was integral in the process of passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery once and for all. The 14th and 15th Amendments eventually followed, which respectively granted national birthright citizenship and established voting rights regardless of race, previous servitude and skin color.
Final Years and Legacy
In 1872, Douglass and his wife Anna moved to Washington D.C. to be nearer several of their children, and to continue his activism. He went on to hold a number of prestigious federal positions under five different presidents continued his public speaking engagements, and published his third and final memoir, "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass." It was particularly resonant because it acknowledged the continuing inequalities in America, despite abolition and Reconstruction.
In 1882, Anna died and in 1884, Douglass remarried Helen Pitts, a suffragist who was 20 years his junior and white. The marriage was not looked upon favorably by many, but the couple remained wedded until his death from a heart attack in 1895 at age 77.
More than a hundred years after his passing, Douglass and his work are regularly celebrated and he paved the way for hundreds of other civil rights activists.
McDaniels says that Douglass was the most photographed American (of any race) of the 19th century and his was an image of masculinity and African American possibility. "That was one of the challenges of his time, to find ways to represent the humanity of people who aspired to be free and came from the same circumstances," he says. "If he's criticized for anything it's that he presents [in his speeches] as sensational and romantic. But even as we reflect on his life we need to understand that he was essentially an ambassador for a small nation within a nation."
Douglass never knew his father, but the prevailing rumor was that he was his white master. Not surprisingly, he also didn't know his true date of birth, so he selected Feb. 14. Following his death, the date became known as "Douglass Day," and related celebrations seem to grow every year. In fact, Douglass' birthdate is one of the reasons February is celebrated as Black History Month.
Who Was Frederick Douglass?
Frederick Douglass was a slave. He was born into slavery in February 1818 – that is according to his former owner’s recordings. He did mention in his first autobiography that he has no accurate knowledge regarding his age because he never saw any authentic recording of it.
He was able to successfully escape from William Freeland, who hired him from his owner, on September 3, 1838. He boarded a train to Maryland traveled through Delaware, and then to New York where he eventually met up with Anna Murray – a free black woman that he eventually married and had 5 children with.
He then went on to become a famous activist, author, public speaker, and leader in the abolitionist movement. He understood early on that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would not totally abolish slavery and grant African Americans equal rights unless there is a continuous fight for it.
Why Are There So Many Photos of Frederick Douglas?
Frederick Douglass believed that photography is a very powerful tool. He embraced this medium to contradict the preconceived notions of Black people. He relied on its objectivity to show what black freedom and dignity really looked like. He used photography to address racism head-on. Frederick Douglass also chose to not smile in those photographs as he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a ‘happy slave’ and rather prefers to show the “face of a fugitive slave.”
Through his photographs, he was able to challenge the racist stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. His portraits always depict a stern look, sans with the slightest smile, always well-dressed, and with carefully styled hair. A stark contrast of how African Americans are portrayed at the time – usually in caricatures or menacing drawings with exaggerated features.
Frederick Douglass had creative control over how his portrait was taken. He’s very particular with aesthetics – only dark and solid background and no props. He wants to make sure that attention is drawn straight to his face. And although during the 19 th century, portraits’ subject is usually captured looking away from the lens, he did the opposite – he rarely does that and prefers looking straight to the lens resulting in powerful images.
The Most Photographed American of the 19 th Century
Frederick Douglass is indeed the most photographed American of his time with 160 photographs. He genuinely believed that photography “highlighted the essential humanity of its subjects.” He embraced this medium and use it to fight racism and centuries of oppression. He knows very well how imagery works and how it affects policy and public perception.
His affinity with photography shows with his four talks about the subject – Lecture on Pictures, Life Pictures, Age of Pictures, and Pictures and Progress. He talks highly of photography pioneer Louis Daguerre. He believed that photography is a social leveler when it became affordable even to ordinary people during the last half of the 19 th century.
By the time of his death in 1895, Frederick Douglass is undeniably the most photographed American and one of the most famous men in the world. His portraits collection extends from his early years donning a thinner physique with strong features, to his later years, showing a much older and wiser-looking man.
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How Negro History Week Became Black History Month and Why It Matters Now
In the years after Reconstruction, campaigning for the importance of Black history and doing the scholarly work of creating the canon was a cornerstone of civil rights work for leaders like Carter G. Woodson. Martha Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, explained: “These are men [like Woodson] who were trained formally and credentialed in the ways that all intellectuals and thought leaders of the early 20th century were trained at Harvard and places like that. But in order to make the argument, in order to make the claim about Black genius, about Black excellence, you have to build the space in which to do that. There is no room.” This is how they built the room.
On Feb. 20, Frederick Douglass, the most powerful civil rights advocate of his era, dies.
Douglass collapsed after attending a meeting with suffragists, including his friend Susan B. Anthony. A lifelong supporter of women’s rights, Douglass was among the 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, N.Y. He once said: “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people. But when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
Washington, D.C., schools begin to celebrate what becomes known as Douglass Day.
On Jan. 12, 1897, Mary Church Terrell, an educator and community activist, proposed the idea of a school holiday to celebrate Frederick Douglass’s life at a school board meeting for the Washington-area “colored schools.” The school board agreed to set aside the afternoon of Feb. 14, 1897, the date Douglass celebrated as his birthday (he had been born enslaved and did not know his exact date of birth) for students to learn about his life, writing and speeches.
Carter G. Woodson, the scholar now known as “the father of Black history,” was inspired to take his work nationwide.
Carter G. Woodson was born in 1875, the son of former enslaved people. He worked as a coal miner before receiving his master’s at the University of Chicago, and he was the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard (after W.E.B. DuBois). In the summer of 1915, Dr. Woodson attended the Lincoln Jubilee celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago, featuring exhibitions that highlighted African-Americans’ recent accomplishments. After seeing the thousands of people who attended from across the country, Dr. Woodson was inspired to do more in the spirit of honoring Black history and heritage.
1924 The movement for Black History grows. On Sept. 9, 1915, Dr. Woodson formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization to promote the scientific study of Black life and history. (Today, the organization is known as the Association for the Study of African .
The young man’s name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd’s Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue.
Aunt Hester is Douglass’s aunt and a slave of Captain Anthony’s. She receives a merciless whipping from her master, accompanied by degrading slurs, because she spends time with a male slave. Douglass witnesses this beating at a very young age, and it affects him greatly.
During the Civil War, Douglass was a consultant to President Abraham Lincoln and helped convince him that slaves should serve in the Union forces and that the abolition of slavery should be a goal of the war.
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.” How else did Douglass promote freedom?
Why Frederick Douglass's struggle for justice is relevant in the Trump era
Ibram X Kendi is professor and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His next book is titled How To Be An Antiracist
A month after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday in 1865, the 17th president of the United States began announcing his plans to reconstruct a divided nation. The new president, Andrew Johnson, cast the four-year civil war that stole nearly one million lives as a temporary family squabble. With the war over, Johnson granted the restoration of land, rights and amnesty to the ideological ancestors of those Americans who today oppose land, rights and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He granted nothing – no land, no civil or voting rights – to the freed people who did not break the law of treason like Confederates, whose resistance on plantations and battlefields were decisive in the Union victory.
Frederick Douglass was horrorstruck. He would end up living 77 long years of struggle against the terror of slavery and Jim Crow, from February 1818 to 1895. But the months immediately after Johnson was catapulted into the presidency may have been the most terrifying of all. Unlike the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and Jim Crow, Douglass never saw the pro-Confederate Johnson coming, kind of like how hardly anyone saw a President Donald Trump coming. This year, people across the United States and the world are celebrating the Douglass bicentennial, the year he would have turned 200 years old. It is appropriate that Douglass’s bicentennial falls squarely in the Trump era. The spirit of history has a way of constantly returning to the present when we need her.
Trump would probably remind Douglass of Andrew Johnson. Johnson and Trump represent the same force of racist progress the same force destined for lists of the worst US presidents of all time the same force of white male nationalism, of racial walls, of bullying opposition to expanding the citizenry and the vote, of bitter fights with Congress, all stemming from their largely pro-Confederate base.
Last fall, when I realized the Douglass bicentennial stood around the corner alongside a Trump presidency, I could not help but wish for a Frederick Douglass. His “philosophy of reform” was based on history that shows human progress has “been born of earnest struggle”, as he said in a captivating speech in 1857 that nearly rivals his best, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” he orated. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
I soul searched in the winds for the body of Douglass to reappear in time for this bicentennial, in time to struggle against the legacy of Andrew Johnson. I stopped after I recalled something Douglass said in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”, an idea that has guided my work as a historian. “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future,” he said. .
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If it made you feel strange to see Frederick Douglass treated this way, that was probably on purpose. “We had fun with the Frederick Douglass character,” McBride told the New York Times recently. “We don’t mean any disrespect to him and to the many thousands of historians who revere him and then the millions of people who revere his memory. But his life was rife for caricature.” For a writer of historical fiction interested in whatever awkward, messy, human drama can be found inside John Brown’s story, a Frederick Douglass sequence is an opportunity not to be missed.
The Douglass love triangle offers the most fertile ground for comedy. Assing, a German journalist who met Douglass in 1856, had a 24-year relationship with him, often living in his Rochester house. We don’t have confirmation that this relationship was sexual (though the show assumes that it was), but like the Ottilie of The Good Lord Bird, played with flushed fervor by Lex King, the historical Assing worshipped Douglass. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Douglass, historian David Blight describes the freethinking feminist’s attraction to the man: “As a German romantic, she was always in search of the hero in history, the maker of new nations, new ideas, and new times.” It seems that when she found Douglass, Assing latched on—permanently. Blight concludes that the two “were probably lovers.”
Assing and Douglass’ relationship, based in words, books, and ideals, stood in contrast to his marriage with Anna. Anna Murray-Douglass was a homemaker and maternal figure par excellence. She had helped Douglass out of slavery, bore him five children in 10 years, and had her own strong abolitionist ideals, but she was “largely illiterate,” in Blight’s words, and seems to have had little interest in participating in the world outside her home. Assing “held Anna in utter contempt,” Blight writes, and hoped that at some point the two would divorce and Assing would be able to step in as the new Mrs. Douglass. This never happened, and Assing died by suicide in 1884, after learning that Douglass had just remarried another, younger woman. (Anna had died two years prior.) This triangle between Anna, Frederick, and Ottilie was the subject of a 2003 novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, called Douglass’ Women, as well as a book by Maria Diedrich about Assing and Douglass’ relationship, called Love Across Color Lines, based on some of their correspondence.
The Good Lord Bird, television version, contrasts Anna’s warm reception of Brown—she hugs him when they meet, saying to Frederick, “How dare you forget to tell me that my favorite John Brown was paying a visit? We need to get some soap on that skin and some meat on those bones”—with Ottilie’s fear of, and rejection of, the Captain. After Douglass and Brown fight at the dinner table, Ottilie hisses at Brown, “You are the craziest person who ever sat at this table!” She thinks Brown will get Douglass killed, while Anna is on Brown’s side, telling Douglass, “Blood must be spilled. You know it. I know it.” The choice to center the Douglass episode on the two women makes for a lot of broad comedy, but it also gives the show a chance to explore Douglass’ own mixed feelings about what Brown was planning to do.
What about the fanciness of Douglass’ house, which stands in stark contrast to the comfortless life we’ve seen Brown and Henry living? At the Douglass’ dinner table, where the assembled group eats turtle soup in leisure, Hawke’s Brown—who starts the meal by combing his mustache with a fork—tells the assembled group about the way his men were living in Kansas: “We were eating nuts in the rain,” he says. “It just makes us more fervent for the cause.” In a 2013 interview with NPR, McBride said he had the novel’s narrator, Henry, call Douglass “a speeching parlor man” to show how different Brown and his crew were from other abolitionists. “Frederick Douglass was a man who made speeches,” McBride said. “Henry was a kid who had been out on the plains and firing weapons and getting drunk. … The abolitionists were not like the rugged people out West, and they were not like John Brown either. They were people who made speeches and did politics.” This doesn’t seem entirely fair, since Douglass was a member of the Underground Railroad and sometimes did perform feats of derring-do. After the so-called Christiana Riot of 1851, in which four fugitives and their defenders killed a slaveholder from Maryland who had come to Pennsylvania to try to recover them, Douglass personally took some of the highly sought-after runaways from his house to the ship that would take them to Canada.
But it’s true that Douglass’ primary weapon was his presence—his voice, his face, his words. In this episode, when Henry first beholds Douglass, who’s lecturing the crowd in Rochester, the boy says in voice-over: “I never knew a Negro could speak like that, or look like that. He was downright beautiful. I never thought I would say that about a gentleman, but he sure was a sight. I couldn’t tear away. Nor could the whites.” This compelling quality was something that Douglass consciously cultivated: For decades, he posed for portraits as a political act, hoping to force Americans to contemplate the dignity of a distinguished, self-possessed Black man. But as Blight points out, while in the 1850s the historical Douglass’ “public image was of a virile man of the world, holding audiences in rapt control with words as well as charisma,” behind the scenes he was frequently ill, broken-down, and overworked. He was stressed about money, and he went on breakneck speaking tours to raise funds to support his newspaper and his family. The production of Douglass, the public figure, wasn’t easy.
And what about the supposed “betrayal” foreshadowed in the episode? In voice-over, during a scene in which Henry and Douglass drink in his study, Henry muses that if he’d known at the time what he knew later, he might have taken his derringer and shot Douglass then and there. “He would short the Old Man something terrible,” Henry says, “at a time when the Old Man needed him most.” In this, he echoes the mixed way the world reacted to the historical Douglass after the Harpers Ferry raid, when it became clear that Douglass had been asked to participate personally and had refused. One of Brown’s men, John Cook, who had been captured, accused Douglass of having said he would go along with the raid and then going back on his promise. All this while Douglass was forced to flee the country ahead of federal authorities, who tried to arrest him as an accessory.
What Frederick Douglass might say to us today
Douglass’s critique of the slave system in which some Founders directly participated, and which all helped to enshrine in the nation’s institutions, was savage. He used every rhetorical device at his command to impress upon his listeners the absolute evil embodied in American slavery, and agitated ceaselessly to eliminate every vestige of that evil from the land.
But at the same time, Douglass understood that to insist on indicting Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others traditionally honored as American heroes as evil because the institution of slavery that they at least tolerated was evil, would alienate many of those he sought to persuade. And that would be counterproductive to the cause. He quite deliberately, therefore, refused to demand that Americans repudiate as hypocritical the Founders and the principles for which they stood. Instead, his plea was that the nation would fully embrace those principles and put them into practice.
Frederick Douglass, as Martin Luther King would phrase it more than a century later, was in effect urging the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
I believe what Douglass would say to us today is that we should honor our flawed heroes for “the good they did, and the principles they contended for” by insisting, as forcefully and as tirelessly as we can, that our nation finally live up to those very principles.
That’s something that could never be said regarding the principles represented by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Jackson, and others of their ilk who sought to enforce white supremacy. And that’s why it’s right that their statues should come down from all places of honor, perhaps to be consigned to museums that can display them in proper historical context.
But as for Washington, Jefferson, and the other American heroes whose flaws are so clearly evident to us today, but who were committed to creating a nation that embodies the highest ideals of mankind… let their statues continue to stand as reminders of the principles of racial equity that we in our day are called upon to dedicate “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to fulfill.