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NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, AN AMERICAN SLAVE. WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.
1849
Courtesy of Library of Congress, General Collections Division
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Photo of the text of NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, AN AMERICAN SLAVE.  WRITTEN BY HIMSELF.
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Document Description
African Americans lacked educational opportunities and in some areas were forbidden from learning to read and write by the law. As a result, many African Americans gained literacy through non-traditional means. In this passage from his autobiographical account, Douglass recalls his youthful determination to learn to write and explains a variety of inventive strategies he employed to fulfill that goal.

Transcript
one day find a good chance. Meanwhile, I would learn to write.

The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's shipyard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus--"L." When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus--"S." A piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked thus--"L. F." When a piece was for starboard side forward, it would be marked thus--"S. F." For larboard aft, it would be marked thus--"L. A." For starboard aft, it would be marked thus--"S. A." I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be. "I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in

[Page] 44

Webster's Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copy-books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at the Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write a hand very similar to that of Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.

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