Black History Month
Frederick Douglass and American History
This month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center will be providing us with insights into black history and culture. To go along with this year’s Black History Month theme “From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas,” today we will examine the life of Frederick Douglass, whose rise from slavery to freedom to the heights of influence and power in his own time and beyond, exemplifies this theme more dramatically than any other man or woman in American history. The following essay is by L. Diane Barnes of Youngstown State University.
Frederick Douglass: From Slavery to Freedom and Beyond
The great civil rights activist Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a Maryland Eastern Shore plantation in February 1818. His given name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, seemed to portend an unusual life for this son of a field hand and a white man, most likely Douglass’s first master, Captain Aaron Anthony. Perhaps Harriet Bailey gave her son such a distinguished name in the hope that his life would be better than hers. She could scarcely imagine that her son’s life would continue to be a source of interest and inspiration nearly 190 years after his birth. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone who more closely embodies this year’s Black History Month theme, “From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas.” Like many in the nineteenth-century United States, Frederick Douglass escaped the horrors of slavery to enjoy a life of freedom, but his unique personal drive to achieve justice for his race led him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery and the movement for black civil rights. His fiery oratory and extraordinary achievements produced a legacy that stretches his influence across the centuries, making Frederick Douglass a role model for the twenty-first century.
One reason Douglass’s story continues to resonate is that his life embodies the American dream of overcoming obstacles and reaching one’s goals. Young Frederick Bailey spent his first twenty years in slavery, first on a Talbot County, Maryland plantation, then in the ship-building city of Baltimore. In the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, he recounts the adversity of his early life. He rarely saw his mother who worked as a field hand, had barely enough clothes to cover his body, and had to eat from a trough like a farmyard animal. As he grew old enough to work he passed through a series of masters, some kind and some cruel.
Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott‘s epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.
Although it was a momentous achievement, attaining freedom was merely a starting-point for Frederick Douglass. Within a few years he was a world-famous abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. He was the single male delegate at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights to support the call for woman’s suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to advise President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. Following the war, hoping that equality would be achieved with the end of slavery, he moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank. In 1877 President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him federal marshal for the District of Columbia, and in that capacity he stood beside James Garfield as he took the presidential oath of office in 1881. By 1889 Frederick Douglass was the U.S. resident minister and consul general (ambassador) to Haiti. Ending his life at Cedar Hill, his twenty-one room District of Columbia home, in February 1895, Frederick Douglass had come about as far as humanly possible from his beginnings in a Maryland slave cabin.
The social distance Douglass traveled during his lifetime continues to inspire modern Americans to take a lesson from his life. If he could achieve so much after his most humble of beginnings, perhaps our own dreams and goals are within reach. Indeed, the words, images and heritage of Douglass abound in history and popular culture. Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.” Because he was willing to dedicate his life to struggle and agitate for the abolition of slavery, and then the cause of civil rights, Douglass remains at the forefront of the American consciousness.
His eloquence with words and prolific publications also make him accessible to modern Americans. Each of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), remain in print and are widely read by schoolchildren, college students, historians, and literary scholars. The remaining texts of his famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century. A scholar at a conference was once overheard to say, “When in doubt, quote Douglass.” Indeed, President George W. Bush invoked Douglass’s name when he spoke to an assembled group during his visit to Senegal in 2003. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has quoted Douglass in his rulings on several education cases.
Modern Americans are constantly reminded about the importance of Douglass’s life and accomplishments. Many sites in the United States pay homage to the civil rights activist through adopting his name. At least twenty-four schools and academies are named for Douglass, and parks and buildings from New York to Louisiana bear his name. Places as diverse as Harlem, Detroit, and Oklahoma City have Frederick Douglass streets or avenues. His life has been dramatized in the fiction of such authors as Miriam Grace Monfredo and Jewell Parker Rhodes, and celebrated in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Robert Hayden. He was memorialized on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. The famous “history painter” Jacob Lawrence painted a series of thirty-two canvases dedicated to the life and memory of Douglass. To ensure that his words remain accessible, Yale University Press and a series of historical editors are producing modern editions of Douglass’s autobiographies as well as his correspondence and speeches. The Library of Congress has digitized its entire collection of Douglass’s papers and made them available at its American Memory website. Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center awards an annual Frederick Douglass Prize for the best book on slavery or abolition. Monuments to Douglass stand in all of the cities and towns where he once lived, and Cedar Hill, his Anacostia, D.C., home is a National Park Service site visited by thousands each year.
The influence of Frederick Douglass reaches beyond his symbolic role as America’s most famous former slave, although in his lifetime moving from slavery to freedom proved a tremendous accomplishment. He continues to be relevant to both history and modern American culture because he moved beyond enjoying freedom to dedicate his life to the principle that struggle is necessary to achieve progress. His desire to make his world a more just place led him to fight for the abolition of slavery and to support social justice and civil rights for African Americans and women. We would do well to follow his example, and to take inspiration from his famous words that “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”