Frederick Douglass was born a slave on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland in 1817/1818. His mother was a slave so he was a slave. His birth name was Frederick Bailey. ( Frederick Douglass was not sure of his birthday. He picked February 14, as the date he would celebrate his birth.)
At the age of 7 Frederick was sent to live at the Wye House plantation. He rarely saw his mother. Frederick’s mother died when he was only 10 years old.
After his mother’s death he was sent to work for the Auld family in Baltimore, Maryland. In the South before the Civil War, it was against the law for a slave to learn to read and write.
Frederick was lucky. At the age of 12, the master’s wife, Sophia Auld, began to teach Frederick the alphabet. When Mr. Auld found out he was furious and forbid his wife from teaching Frederick to read.
But Frederick was a very bright young man and he wanted to learn to read. He wanted to learn everything! He secretly taught himself to read and write by watching the Auld family and by watching the children study their lessons.
Once he could read there was nothing to stop him. He read everything he could get his hands on. He read newspapers and books and articles about slavery. He started to teach other slaves how to read and write. This caused Frederick lots of trouble.
Because Frederick had broken the law by trying to teach other slaves to read he was moved to another plantation where he was beaten by the slave owner in an attempt to break his spirit. The beatings only made Frederick more determined than ever to gain his freedom.
When Frederick was twenty-one, he escaped from slavery by disguising himself as a sailor. He carried papers that showed he was a free black seaman. He arrived in New York by train – a free man!
During this time he met and married his first wife, Anna Murray. He also changed his name from Bailey to Douglass. He and Anna settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. They were married for 44 years and had five children together.
Douglass met many anti-slavery people in Massachusetts. These people were called abolitionists because they wanted to “abolish” slavery. Frederick began making powerful speeches against slavery.
He spoke about his experiences as a slave. He became famous. But his fame put him in danger of being caught by his former owners. Douglass traveled to Ireland and Britain where he continued to speak out against slavery.
In 1845 he wrote a vivid book about his years as a slave, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book made him famous and became a bestseller.
He wrote two more books about his life including My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
When he returned to America, he purchased his freedom, and started an antislavery newspaper. In addition to his efforts to gain freedom for slaves, he believed in equal rights for all people and spoke out in support of women’s right to vote.
During the Civil War, he recruited African-Americans for the Union Army. He fought for the rights of all black soldiers and insisted on equal pay and treatment for black soldiers fighting in the war.
Shortly before his death, he became the United States ambassador to Haiti. Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895 but his legacy lives on through his writings and memorials.
He once said: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”
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