Wednesday, September 3, 2014

September 3, 1838 - Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, and a slave from the moment of his first breath. His mother, Harriet, was a slave on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, between Hillsboro and Cordova. The exact day and year of Douglass's birth is unknown, but he later chose to celebrate it on February 14. He was of mixed race, and his ancestry likely included Native American, African, and European heritage. Rumors were that the slave master was his father.

He was separated from his mother at a very early age, as was common at the time. When he was seven, he was moved to the Wye House plantation, and three years later was transferred to Baltimore. His master's wife began teaching him the alphabet when he was 12, and he learned to read by seeing what other (white) children read and by associating spoked words with written ones. His master disapproved, and lectured him about how reading led people to question their slavery and demand freedom. Douglass said this was the first and best anti-slavery speech he'd ever heard.

When Douglass turned 15, he was sent to work for farmer Edward Covey, a "slave-breaker" who whipped Douglass regularly and nearly broke him psychologically. Douglass confronted Covey -- an exceedingly dangerous thing to do. But Covey did not report him to the law, and never beat him again.

Douglass made his first escape attempt while living in Baltimore when he was 15. He tried again while hired out to Covey. In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman living in Baltimore. She was five years old than he, and he determined to escape slavery and marry her.

On September 3, 1838, Douglass successfully escaped slavery by boarding a train in Baltimore. Using money and a naval uniform given to him by Murray, he fled to the anti-slavery stronghold of Philadelphia, then on to New York City where he stayed with noted abolitionist David Ruggles.

Douglass and Murray were married on September 15, 1838. The couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. After meeting and staying with Nathan and Mary Johnson, they adopted Douglass as their married last name. He joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and became a preacher in 1839.

Douglass also joined several abolitionist organizations, and became fast friends with the abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass' oratorical skills were considerable, and he soon became one of the North's most sought-after anti-slavery speakers. But his life was constantly in danger. In Pendleton, Indiana, a mob chased and beat him before a local Quaker family rescued him. His hand was broken in the attack, and it never healed properly.

Douglass published his autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave", in 1845. Concerned that his old master might try to use the Fugitive Slave Law to recapture Douglass, his friends urged him to flee the country. He toured Ireland and Britain for two years, where he was astonished to see black people treated as equals. The royalties from Douglass' book allowed him to purchase his legal freedom in 1846. He returned to America in spring of 1847.

On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered an address to the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. This speech eventually became known as "What to the slave is the 4th of July?" and some consider it the greatest anti-slavery oration ever given. In 1855, Douglass published "My Bondage and My Freedom", followed by "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" in 1881.

After the Civil War, Douglass served as president of the Freedman's Savings Bank. Through his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant, he influenced Grant to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Klan Act), and the second and third Enforcement Acts. In 1872, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, as Victoria Woodhull's running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

Frederick Douglass moved from Rochester to Washington, D.C., in 1872.

Frederick and Anna Douglass had five children: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, and Annie (who died at the age of 10). Anna died in 1882, and in 1884 Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white feminist from New York nearly 20 years younger than Douglass. The Freedman's Savings Bank and his newspaper "The New Era" both failed in 1874. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia to ensure his financial security. He was appointed Recorder of Deeds in 1881. Frederick Douglass visited his old slave-master, Thomas Auld, in 1877. Douglass reconciled with Auld, then on his deathbed. That same year, Douglass bought a large Victorian home in Washington, D.C., on a hill above the Anacostia River. He and Anna named it Cedar Hill.

Douglass lectured widely in Europe in the last years of his life. He became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party's roll call vote in 1888.

On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack after a speaking engagement in the District of Columbia. He was buried in Rochester, New York. Anna and their child were disinterred from Graceland Cemetery in D.C., and reburied besides him.

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