Who was Frederick Douglass?


Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was among the most prominent African Americans of his time. He served the national government in several official capacities and is recognized as one of the most influential lecturers and authors in the history of the United States.

Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. He was separated from his mother when he was very young and never learnt the identity of his white father. At the age of eight, he was sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh and Sophia Auld. In defiance of state law, Sophia taught him to read. Her husband disapproved, claiming that if a slave learns to read he would become dissatisfied with his position and desire freedom.

In 1838, at the age of twenty, Douglass managed to flee by passing for a sailor. He settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he started a family with his new wife, Anna Murray. There, Douglass quickly became involved in the abolitionist movement and became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He soon acquired acclaim as a powerful speaker, enthusiastic abolitionist and strong defender of women’s rights.

Douglass’ best known work is his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and became an immediate bestseller.

However, Douglass’s new found fame had an unfortunate side effect. Fearing that his former owner would try to reclaim his "possession", Douglass decided to travel to Ireland. He spent two years in the British Isles and gave lectures on the horrors of slavery, mainly in Protestant churches. He was happy in his new surroundings and astonished that he encountered so little racial prejudice among the British, remarking that they treated him not "as a color, but as a man".

When Douglass returned to the United States he settled in Rochester, New York, and established his own newspaper, the North Star. The paper provided a forum for black writers and highlighted successful black figures in American society. From 1850 onwards, Douglass became involved in the Underground Railroad and his house, situated close to the Canadian border, became an important station on the road to freedom.

During the Civil War, Douglass insisted in several speeches and newspaper editorials that the aim of the war must be to abolish slavery and that blacks should be allowed to fight in the Union Army. On 31 December 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves in areas not held by Union troops were free. The following year Congress authorized black individuals to enlist in the Union Army.

In 1865 the Confederate forces surrendered and with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution slavery was officially abolished in all areas of the United States.

After the war, Douglass continued to fight for the rights of black Americans, most notably black suffrage. Following the death of his first wife, Anna Murray, Douglass married his former secretary Helen Pitts. She was a white feminist, nearly 20 years his junior. The union provoked a storm of controversy. Douglass dismissed all criticism saying that in his first marriage he had honored his mother’s race and in his second his father’s.

During the course of his life, Douglass occupied several public posts, including Assistant Secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission (1871), U.S. Marshall of the District of Columbia (1877-1881) and U.S. Minister to Haiti (1889-1891).

Frederick Douglass died from a heart attack in 1895, at the age of 77.

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