One of the abolitionist movement's primary leaders was Frederick Douglass. He was born Frederick Baily, the son of a field hand and, reportedly, her white master, in 1818. He was first sold at age six. He learned to read and write over the next ten years, until he was apprenticed as a caulker for a shipbuilder in Baltimore. Although he was able to rent out his own time and thereby earn some money, he chafed for his freedom.
Finally, in 1838, he borrowed forged papers and boarded a train to Philadelphia. He made his way to New York, and then to New Bedford. Douglass began attending lectures at The American Anti-Slavery Society, which had been formed in 1833. Most of the leaders in the society were white, and their outlook towards blacks was paternalistic. Often, black abolitionists had a difficult time making their voices heard.
Douglass also became a leader in the local black community. As an ordained minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, he joined the battle against the American Colonization Society and the attempt by whites to force blacks to move to Africa. Douglass, along with others in the abolitionist movement and the AME Church, believed that the United States was the true home of black Americans.
In March 1839, some of Douglass's anti-colonization statements were published in the Liberator, a prominent antislavery newspaper. His writings brought him to the attention of abolitionist leaders, and, after attending an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket Island in 1841, Douglass became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a colleague of William Lloyd Garrison. He published his own newspaper, The North Star, from 1847 to 1851, and wrote three autobiographies. Douglass also became a champion for women's rights, and participated in the 1848 women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, NY.
During the Civil War, Douglass became an active recruiter for the Massachusetts 54th regiment for colored soldiers, and met with Abraham Lincoln twice to discuss the unequal treatment of black soldiers and contingency plans for slaves in case the war is lost. Seven years later, after his Rochester home was destroyed by arson, Douglass moved to Washington. He held several prominent positions first as president of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company, and then in the government of the District of Columbia. In 1889, he became the United States consul general to Haiti, but resigned after one year after being accused of being too sympathetic to Haitian interests.
Before the century was over, Douglass was known internationally as an outspoken antislavery writer, publisher, and lecturer - the lion of black America. He died in 1895.
To read the Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, visit:
In 1835, Douglass was hired out by his master to William Freeland, a farmer living in Talbot County, Maryland. He secretly organized a Sunday school, where he taught other slaves to read: "I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man. . . I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women. I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul."
After moving to New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass was extremely disappointed by the segregation and condescending manner he found in the northern Methodist churches. He joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and, in 1839, became a licensed preacher in the Church. Although Douglass wrote that he looked back at his time in the AME Zion Church with great joy, he did not remain with them for more than a few years, saying that "it consented to the same spirit which held my brethren in chains."
In an appendix to his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, published in 1845, Douglass clarified that he was not opposed to all religion, but only the Christianity of a slaveholding America: "I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels…"
Douglass broke from his abolitionist mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, in 1847. While Garrison was radical in his views, Douglass had grown more pragmatic. Although he had initially agreed with Garrison that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document, he changed his views, believing that the Constitution could be used to bring about emancipation. That same year, Douglass began publishing his own newspaper, the North Star.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered his famous speech, "What to the Slave is your Fourth of July?" at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held in Rochester, NY, Douglass’ home at the time. In his scathing address, which is considered "perhaps the greatest antislavery oration ever given," Douglass railed against the institution of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the hypocritical American Christianity that supported such oppression. (To read the entire speech, go to: http://www.thisnation.com/library/print/douglassfourthjuly2.html)
After having served as recruiter of black soldiers, Doulgass sent his eldest son, Charles, to fight in the Civil War as part of the Mass.' 54th in 1862. Charles didn't see much action, as he was ill for most of his time in the service.
In 1870, Douglass began publishing his own newspaper, the New National Era. He hoped it would hold the nation to its post-Civil War commitment of equality. Increasingly, however, he was forced to work behind the lines of segregation, as a black leadership formed to pressure the new GOP president, Ulysses Grant.
Douglass became the President of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company in 1874. The bank failed several months later. That same year, New National Era folded, causing Doulgass to lose ten thousand dollars. When Rutherford B. Hayes won the contested presidential election, Douglass took the job of Marshall of DC, largely for the job security.
Douglass published The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his third and final autobiography, in 1881.
In 1892, Douglass attended Bishop Henry McNeal Turner's nationally convened conference in Indianapolis, where he vociferously opposed the Back to Africa Movement. He also opposed the Exodus to Kansas, supported by Sojourner Truth. He hated to see his people as "refugees."