Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman
is a 1959 biography
of the runaway slave and prominent abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, by the American poet and Harlem Renaissance author Arna Bontemps. Frederick Douglass
is considered to be one of the most definitive records of Douglass's life, aside from the abolitionist's own autobiography.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in the early months of 1818 on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County, Maryland. According to Douglass's own history, he was born in his grandmother's cabin to his mother who was a slave on a plantation between Hillsboro and Cordova. Douglass believed he was the son of his white master, and later accounts and documents suggest this was likely the case. As was often the custom in slave families, Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age, but he still lived with his grandmother, Betty Bailey, until the age of six, when he was relocated away from Betty to a plantation at Wye House.
After Douglass's owner at Wye House died, he was sold to Hugh Auld in Baltimore. Living in the city, surrounded by culture and literature, would be a hugely formative experience for Douglass. At first, Hugh's wife, Sophia, tutored Douglass, teaching him to read and write. However, before long, Hugh disapproved of the tutoring. Douglass was often in earshot when Hugh and Sophia argued over Douglass's education; he would later write that this was his first exposure to the rhetoric surrounding both pro-slavery attitudes and the rising abolitionist movement.
Unfortunately, Sophia eventually relented to her husband's opinion that educating slaves was dangerous because it would encourage them to seek freedom. From that point on, Douglass educated himself in secret, gathering up whatever books he could and hiding them, and also asking questions of white students his age whom he came across. Before long, Douglass was teaching other slaves to read using the New Testament. These slaves were allowed to attend church, and so Douglass used the opportunity to teach them to read in secret. Unfortunately, word of the study group got out, and local slave owners and pro-slavery advocates gathered in a mob at the church, intimidating the slaves so that they would no longer seek young Douglass's tutelage.
Up to this point, Douglass had largely worked for city owners and was thus spared much of the torment and torture visited upon slaves who worked on large farms. That would change when Douglass was sold to the notoriously violent "slave-breaker" Edward Covey in 1833 when Douglass was fifteen. Over the next year, Covey physically and psychologically tortured Douglass, whipping him at regular intervals whether he had broken any of Covey's rules or not. During this time, Douglass almost lost his will to live. Nevertheless, in the end, Douglass found his resolve to live and even stood up to Covey, beating him in a physical confrontation. After that, Covey backed down his physical assaults considerably as he was now scared of Douglass.
In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with a free black woman, Anna Murray. Through contacts in the Underground Railroad, Murray helped support Douglass's escape one year later. Douglass and Murray would later marry and stay married for forty-four years until her death. They settled in Massachusetts and changed their names to "Douglass," after two characters in Walter Scott's poem "The Lady in the Lake." During these years, Douglass became deeply involved with the abolitionist movement after discovering the writings and lectures of William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper, The Liberator
, Douglass counted as "second only to the Bible" in his heart. Douglass began attending various protests and lectures until, one day, he was invited to speak of his experiences to the anti-slavery protesters. Garrison was so impressed by Douglass's intellect and oratory skills that he invited Douglass to give lectures all over the free states.
Douglass's career as an abolitionist culminated with the 1845 publication of his autobiography. Despite the belief of some racists that a black man could not have written such an eloquent book, the autobiography became a best seller, undergoing numerous reprints and being translated into French and Dutch. In 1847, after spending a couple years traveling Europe, Douglass began publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star
. Douglass also became a prominent women's rights activist. In fact, Douglass was the only African American invited to Elizabeth Cady Stanton's groundbreaking women's suffrage conference, the Seneca Falls Convention.
Douglass would live for many more years, through the Civil War and American Reconstruction. He became involved in the Republican Party, which at that time had advocated strongly against slavery and for Civil Rights. At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first-ever African American to receive a vote for the Presidency from the major party's roll call vote. A year later, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglass to his administration, serving as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. In 1895, at the age of seventy-seven, Douglass died of a heart attack after receiving a standing ovation at a women's rights conference.Frederick Douglass
is a thorough and fascinating look at one of the most impressive figures in American history.