Frederick Douglas

Frederick Douglass

Portraits of a free man.

Introduction

Growing up as a slave in the early 1800s on the eastern shore of Maryland, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey suffered.

He was separated from his slave mother as an infant; his father was allegedly the master on the plantation where he was raised. He endured physical abuse and deprivation.

However, he did not let these hardships keep him down. He would become Frederick Douglass, one of the most influential African-American figures in history.

“Frederick Douglass is probably one of the most iconic individuals of his day,” said John W. McCaskill, park guide at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington. “Douglass starts his life as a slave, but he ends his life as a statesman.”

Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, fleeing to the North, where he would take the surname Douglass from a Sir Walter Scott poem. He spent years speaking to enraptured crowds about the evils of slavery, all while evading slave hunters. He married, moved to Massachusetts and would have five children. In 1846, he left for a speaking tour in Ireland and Great Britain.

He returned in 1847 and began publishing an abolitionist newsletter, the North Star. He continued speaking out against slavery and inequality. He gained the respect of President Abraham Lincoln before the Civil War and was his confidant and adviser until his assassination.

“You could just simply walk into the White House if you wanted to back in the day. If the president was available he’d see you,” McCaskill said. “One of the things Douglass was talking about was if you want to win this civil war you let (African-Americans) sign up and they will win.”

According to the National Archives, by the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and 19,000 served in the Navy. Of those, 40,000 died. Many historians agree that the sacrifices of those men helped turn the tide and brought victory to the Union.

In the years after the Civil War, Douglass was involved in women’s rights and prison reform, became a U.S. marshal, was on the board of trustees at Howard University and continued speaking engagements until his death Feb. 20, 1895.

“This is not a great story because it’s a great black story,” McCaskill said. “Not because it’s a great American story. It’s a great human story, because anytime a person pushes through adversity and wins … the whole entire team wins.”

hardy.kenyon@stripes.com

The beginnings of a statesman

Frederick Douglass wrote an autobiography in 1845 so eloquent many people at the time doubted its veracity. No small feat for the son of a slave. His journey to becoming one of the most influential men in American history began early in his life.

Beginnings of a statesman

Frederick Douglass wrote an autobiography so eloquent many people at the time doubted its veracity. No small feat for the son of a slave. His journey to becoming one of the most influential men in American history began early in his life.

Fame helped a free man

How fame helped Douglass remain a free man

Even when legally free in the North, evading slave hunters remained a part of Douglass' life. Fame, a double-edged sword, helped and hindered his ability to remain one step ahead of those who wanted him silenced.

The Civil War

What did it mean for black men to enlist to fight during the Civil War? For men like Douglass, everything. The continued desire for former slaves to pick up arms in defense of the Union also began to change the minds of some who were more ambivalent about the rights of black Americans.

What did it mean for black men to enlist to fight during the Civil War? For men like Douglass, everything. The continued desire for former slaves to pick up arms in defense of the Union also began to change the minds of some who were more ambivalent about the rights of black Americans.

'A sign of character'

A sign of character

Douglass, never one to back away from a fight, stood up not only for slaves but for women's rights. Even at a time when he could have been arrested simply for existing, Douglass fought for the suffrage movement. Fighting for the rights of others became a sign of the man's character.

Inspiring military service for generations

Douglass' sons fought in the Civil War, and he himself helped recruit young men to the Union's cause. They were among the many black Americans who helped forge a legacy of military service among the black community that continues to this day.

Inspiring military service

Douglass' sons fought in the Civil War, and he himself helped recruit young men to the Union's cause. They were among the many black Americans who helped forge a legacy of military service among the black community that continues to this day.

Relationship with Lincoln

Relationship with Lincoln

Douglass attended the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln and remained so close to the Lincoln family that he was given a prized cane by Mary Todd Lincoln upon the president’s assassination. But Douglass’ and Lincoln’s relationship was more complex than many people realize.

Prison reform becomes new fight

Douglass became an important figure in the U.S. government and in civic enterprises. He was also an influential voice for prison reform, as a nation without a forced labor pool tried to keep slaves through alternative means.

Douglass became an important figure in the U.S. government and in civic enterprises. He was also an influential voice for prison reform, as a nation without a forced labor pool tried to keep slaves through alternative means.