Facts, information and articles about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure in Black History

Frederick Douglass Facts


February 1818 (est)
Talbot County, Maryland


February 20, 1895 Washington, D.C.


Abolitionist, author, editor, diplomat


Anna Murray-Douglass (1838–1882)
Helen Pitts



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Frederick Douglass summary: Frederick Douglass was a former slave who became a prominent voice in the Abolitionist Movement and one of the most widely known and influential African Americans of his day. He authored an autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself in 1845. He began publishing a newspaper in 1848; it took its name, North Star, from the directions given to slaves attempting to escape from the South, "Follow the North Star." During the Civil War he met with President Abraham Lincoln and helped recruit black troops from the North after the Union Army began accepting them for enlistment, believing it would aid in achieving citizenship for his race. Post-war he was appointed to several public posts.

Born in Slavery

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to a slave mother, Harriet Bailey, and an unknown white man, on Maryland’s eastern shore. His date of birth is unknown but February 1818 is the generally accepted date. Mother and son were the property of Aaron "Captain Anthony" Anthony, who is believed to have fathered the boy; Anthony owned a few slaves and small farms but worked as a clerk and superintendent—"what might be called the overseer of the overseers," as Douglass described it—on the plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd. Douglass saw his mother less than a half-dozen times; after giving birth to him in the cabin of her mother, Betsey Bailey, she returned to the farm where she worked, and she died when he was seven or eight. His grandparents Isaac and Betsey Bailey and an aunt raised him until he was six, when he was sent to Wye Town plantation.

Attitudes among slaveowners toward their human property varied widely; Douglass had the misfortune to have been born into a situation where cruelty was the norm, and he witnessed brutal beatings administered to his aunt and other slaves while he was still young. Anthony’s overseer, whom Douglass identified in his autobiography only as Mr. Plummer, "a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster," meted out harsh punishments frequently. He seemed to take special pleasure in whipping Hester, Douglass’ aunt. While still very young, Douglass witnessed one of these vicious whippings, an event he called, "the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass."

Frederick Douglass learns to read in Baltimore

When Douglass was "about five," he was loaned to Hugh Auld, the brother-in-law of Anthony’s daughter Lucretia, who took him to Baltimore to be the servant of Hugh’s young son Thomas. Hugh Auld and his wife, Sophia, did not practice the same level of cruelty as that found on Col. Lloyd’s farms, providing the boy with a modicum of relief from the brutality that had surrounded him all his life. Sophia had never previously owned a slave and initially treated Douglass with kindness. She even taught him the alphabet and was teaching him how to spell simple words until her husband stopped her. Unintentionally, while explaining to his wife why the lessons must stop—among other reasons, the law forbade teaching slaves to read and write—Auld enlightened Douglass that blacks were denied education as a means of maintaining control over them. The young slave grasped that the opposite was also true: if he could become educated, he might have more power for himself. He took to concealing a book on his person when he was sent on errands and used bread taken from the house to give to the children of poor white families in the neighborhood in exchange for their assistance in continuing his lessons.

When he was about 12 he obtained a book called The Colombian Orator, which contained anti-slavery arguments. The portion that most affected Douglass was a fictional account of a conversation between a slave owner and his slave, who had run off and been returned three times. The slave owner makes all the arguments in favor of slavery, and the slave refutes them.

It was in Baltimore that he first heard the words abolition and abolitionist. He later credited being sent to Baltimore for laying the foundation and opening the gateway "to all my subsequent prosperity."

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In March 1832, he was sent back to his owner, who by this time was Hugh Auld’s brother, Thomas, whose late wife, Lucretia, had been the daughter of Douglass’ original master, Captain Anthony. Thomas whipped Douglass on several occasions, saying Baltimore had "ruined" him. Finally, after about nine months, Thomas leased him to Edward Covey, who had a reputation as a "slavebreaker." He utilized deceptiveness and blatant brutality to keep slaves in a constant atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, to break their spirits and insure they would be subservient when he returned them to their masters. During the first six months he suffered at Covey’s hands Douglass endured frequent whippings and near starvation, but that summer, according to Narrative, he fought back and he and Covey went at each other for what he thought was about two hours.

Covey never gave him a severe whipping again nor called the constable to take him to town for a public whipping as punishment for striking a white man. Douglass decided Covey feared losing his reputation as a slavebreaker if a 16-year old could best him, and that meant he would no longer be able to hire at favorable prices slaves to work his farm. His servitude to Covey ended with the expiration of Thomas Auld’s contract with Covey on Christmas Day, 1833, and he returned to Auld, who repeatedly leased out his slave.

Frederick Douglass escapes to freedom

In 1838, going behind Thomas Auld’s back, Douglass convinced Hugh Auld to let him contract himself out as a caulker to a Baltimore shipbuilder. In return, he gave Hugh about six dollars of his weekly wages, the lion’s share of what he earned. On September 3, Douglass made his break for freedom by borrowing or purchasing papers from a free black sailor. From Baltimore he traveled by train and steamboat, reaching New York City the following day. There, he married Anna Murray, a free black housekeeper whom he had met through a debating club for free black men, the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society.

Not long after their September 15 wedding, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and stayed with Nathan and Mary Johnson, caterers who were associated with the abolitionist movement. Nathan suggested Frederick take the last name Douglas, from James of Clan Douglas in Sir Walter Scott’s poem Lady of the Lake. He did but chose to spell it with a double s.

The Douglasses had five children. He became a licensed preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, began attending abolitionist meetings and subscribed to the Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. At age 23, he was invited to speak as a featured guest during the annual convention of Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His moving speech led to a three-year contract as a traveling speaker for the society, and he developed a popular following.

In 1845, he published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. It became an overnight sensation and was widely circulated in Europe as well as in the northern United States. In August, he departed for the British Isles—in part because the book had identified him as a runaway slave, and in America he was under the constant threat of being seized and returned to his master. Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution required such action if his owner demanded his return.

His speeches packed houses in England and Ireland, and in 1847 British friends purchased his freedom from his owner, to remove the threat of him being returned to servitude. It has been suggested that Douglass’ popularity in Britain and the intense anti-slavery feelings he helped reinforce there played a role in keeping England from intervening in the American Civil War on the pro-slavery Confederate side. Britain had enacted gradual emancipation, using an apprenticeship system, in 1833 and had ended the apprenticeship requirement in 1838.

William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown

The trip to Britain led to a change in Douglass. There, he was treated as an equal in his own right, rather than being in the shadow of Garrison as he was back home. After returning to America in 1847, he began distancing himself from Garrison, who had become so extreme in his zeal to see slavery ended that he was encouraging abolitionists not to vote or attend church because, Garrison maintained, the Constitution was a document of slavery and churches were not taking an active role in ending the "peculiar institution" of slavery. The United States should be split up, he said, to remove free states from the control of slave states.

Douglass, on the other hand, said in 1851 the Constitution could be "wielded in behalf of emancipation." He did not support dissolving the Union, thereby abandoning between three and four million slaves in the South.

When Douglass began publishing his own newspaper, North Star, it was the final betrayal in the eyes of Garrison, publisher of Liberator. The dispute ended their friendship until they reconciled during the Civil War.

Douglass may have felt Garrison had become too extreme but that didn’t prevent a friendship from forming between the former slave and another anti-slavery extremist, John Brown. The two met in 1848, and they corresponded and visited with each other over the following decade. Brown told Douglass of his plan to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and use the weapons there to arm slaves so they could rise up against their masters. Douglass did not agree with this violent approach, fearing that it would cause a negative reaction and hurt the abolitionist cause. After John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859 failed, Douglass was sought as a co-conspirator. Once again, he fled the United States, this time going to Canada before traveling on to England. He returned home in 1860 following the death of his daughter, Annie. Abolitionists had made Brown into a martyr, and Douglass was never charged with involvement in the Harpers Ferry raid.

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

After the Civil War began, Douglass became one of the most outspoken advocates for admitting Negro troops into the Union armies, seeing this as a path not only to ending slavery but to achieving full citizenship. He argued, "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

The war’s appallingly high battle casualties eventually led the Army and the government to reconsider and accept the service of black troops. Douglass and his son, Frederick Douglass, Jr., became recruiters. Another son, Lewis, joined the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, was promoted to sergeant major, and was wounded during the unit’s famed attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina.

Although the doors to military service had been opened, inequality still existed in the way black soldiers were treated, including paying them less than white soldiers were paid. In 1863, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the inequalities in military service. The issue of equal pay was later resolved.

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The two men met again in August 1864, when the president asked Douglass to help in aiding slaves to escape from the South. As long as they remained, they were a pillar shoring up the rebellion by growing crops, building fortifications, etc. In the coming months, however, Lincoln had won reelection and Confederate armies were being pushed back toward Richmond and Atlanta; the plan to aid escaping slaves was never enacted.

Douglass was present at the March 1865 White House reception following Lincoln’s second inauguration, the first black man or woman ever invited to such a reception as a guest. The guards, apparently not informed to expect Douglass, tried to usher him and a black lady he was escorting out a side door. He sent word to Lincoln, and soon was greeting the president again. It was the last time they would see each other.

Frederick Douglass after the Civil War

Douglass continued his career as a lecturer after the war. He had seen slavery abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865; within the next five years he would see amendments passed that gave blacks the right to vote and conferred full citizenship upon them—although both were observed more in theory than in practice well into the 20th century, when the Civil Rights Movement broke down many barriers in the 1950s and ’60s.

After President Ulysses S. Grant took office in 1869 he appointed Douglass to a commission to investigate annexing the Dominican Republic (the U.S. rejected annexation). In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes named him U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia; Hayes’ successor, James Garfield, gave that post to someone else but made Douglass the Recorder of Deeds for D.C. His other appointments included charge d’affaires to the Dominican Republic and minister-resident and consul-general to Haiti.

His wife, Anna, died in 1882. Two years later, in a very controversial move, he wed a white woman Helen Pitts, a feminist and the daughter of abolitionist Gideon Pitts. Unlike many who had been involved in the abolition movement, Douglass also wanted greater equality for women. At the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, he said, "We hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women."

On February 20, 1895, he suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after attending the National Council of Women meeting in Washington. Helen established the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association to memorialize him. Their home, Cedar Hill, which overlooks Washington, has been part of the National Park Service since 1962.

In the 1890s, a number of African American communities began celebrating the anniversary of his birth in February each year, just as they had celebrated Lincoln’s February 12 birthday since the end of the Civil War. In the 1920s, the dates of those traditional celebrations led Carter G. Woodson to choose a week in February, the month encompassing both men’s birthdays, as the time for Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in the 1960s.


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