Childhood & Early Life
He was born to a slave woman, Harriet Bailey, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Maryland. The exact identity of his father or date of his birth is not known. It is assumed that his father was one of his white masters, but there is no verification of this claim.
He was separated from his mother at an early age and was brought up by his maternal grandmother. His mother died when he was ten.
He became the property of Aaron Anthony, the overseer at the Wye House plantation. After the death of Anthony in 1826, he was given to Lucretia Auld.
Lucretia sent him to her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld. His wife Sophia was a kind woman who taught Frederick to read even though it was illegal in those times to teach a slave to read. However, her husband discovered this and stopped her from doing this.
He continued learning from white children in the neighbourhood, and by reading newspapers.
During 1833-34, he was given to a farmer Edward Covey who was notorious as a ‘slave breaker’. He beat up the teenage slave several times before Douglass finally fought back. Covey could not dare beat him again.
In 1835, he was rented to William Freeland, a plantation owner. There he organized a Sunday school and taught other slaves to read. His master did not bother, but other owners interfered and stopped the educational activities permanently.
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Tired of being ill-treated as a slave, he made an escape attempt in 1836 but was caught and jailed briefly. Thereafter, he was sent back to Hugh and Sophia Auld who, in turn, rented him out to work in a shipyard.
He met various free blacks through his involvement with the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a debating club for free blacks. One of them was Anna Murray, a housekeeper who would later become his wife.
With help from Anna who provided him a sailor’s uniform and some money, he boarded a train to Havre de Grace on September 3, 1838. From there he traveled to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York via Pennsylvania.
On September 15, 1838, he married Anna and settled in Massachusetts adopting the last name of Douglass. He became an active participant in church and abolitionist meetings.
He attended a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society in 1841 where he was invited to speak about his experiences. After this, he was motivated by other abolitionists to become an anti-slavery lecturer.
He participated in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project in 1843 during which he extensively toured all over the U.S.
In 1845, he published his first autobiography, ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’, surprising people that a former slave—a black man—could write so eloquently. The book became a bestseller.
He traveled to Ireland and Britain and spent two years lecturing on slavery along with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He returned to U.S. in 1847.
He published some abolitionist newspapers - the most prominent of all was ‘North Star’, which remained in circulation till 1851. It was merged with the ‘Liberty Party Paper’ to form ‘Frederick Douglass’ paper’.
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Along with abolitionism, he also voiced his opinion in favour of women’s suffrage. He participated in the first women’s rights convention – Seneca - in 1848, becoming the only African-American to do so.
In 1855, he published his second autobiography, ‘My Bondage and My Freedom’ in which he discussed his transition from a slave to a free man.
He started publishing ‘Douglass Monthly’, a supplement to ‘Frederick Douglass’ paper’ in 1859. It eventually became an independent publication and was in distribution till 1863.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declaring the freedom of all slaves in Confederate-held territories took effect from January 1, 1863. He met President Abraham Lincoln the same year to discuss the treatment of black soldiers and black suffrage.
In 1874, he was made the president of the troubled Reconstruction-era Freedman’s Savings Bank. He worked with the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to stabilize the bank but could not prevent its closure.
He published his last autobiography, ‘Life and Times of Frederick Douglass’ in 1881. He gave an account of his life during and after the civil war, and of his meetings with the American presidents in this book.
He also held various political positions during his later years.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Anna Murray in 1838. They had five children. Anna was a devoted wife who supported her husband through thick and thin. He became depressed for a while after her death in 1882.
In 1884, he married Helen Pitts - a white feminist 20 years his junior. Their marriage caused considerable controversy as inter-racial marriages were very rare during those days.
He died on February 20, 1895 of natural causes.