February 14, 1818? – February 20, 1895
One of the strongest voices the United States had in denouncing the practice of slavery was Frederick Douglass. Having experienced slavery and the corresponding injustices that went with it, he had a unique perspective in order to make his case against it. In the truest sense of the word, to understand freedom one must first understand the consequences when one is denied their freedom. When one looks at the reality of this consequence, it is clear that Frederick Douglass knew the meaning of freedom better than most of the abolitionists of his day. He was the face and voice of a practice that denied humanity to so many.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave most likely in February 1818. Like most slaves, he was denied the actual date of his birth. During his lifetime he always believed he was born in February 1817, and chose the 14th because he liked Valentine’s Day. Only after his death was it discovered in slave records that his birth was recorded in February of 1818. He was the 4th child of Harriet Bailey, a slave who lived on a plantation near Easton, Talbot County, Maryland. As for the paternity of the boy, it was believed that his father was a white man, either an overseer or possibly the plantation owner himself, Captain Aaron Anthony. As Douglass looked upon his paternity, “slavery made his mother a myth, his father a mystery.” He was named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and, after his birth, was sent to live with his slave grandparents, Betsey and Isaac Bailey, who lived independently from the plantation, for his first six years of life. They lived in a small cabin along the Tuckahoe Creek, and when his mother was able, she would walk the several miles from the main plantation to visit him. She died when he was quite young, only hearing the news after her death and burial.
When he was about six he was sent to live at the plantation, being delivered there by his dutiful grandmother. He was responsible for tending to the farm animals and minor chores around the grounds. He remained there until March of 1826, when he was sent to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld, relatives by marriage to Captain Anthony, on Alliciana Street, in the Fells Point District in Baltimore. For a slave, life was good there, taking meals at a table and sleeping in a real bed. Most slaves who lived in major cities were treated considerably better than their plantation counterparts because slaveholders were more conscious of how others would perceive their treatment of their slaves. Slaves could be seen running errands and performing work throughout the city, with some semblance of independence.
While living in the household of the Aulds, Douglass would receive his introduction to an education. Sophia began teaching him how to read and write, most likely because she enjoyed having the opportunity to share her learning with an eager student. This practice was halted when Mr. Auld found out about the schooling and proceeded to inform his wife that it was against the law to teach a slave. As Mr. Auld stated, “Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave.” (Miller, p. 12) This imparted information made Douglass more determined then ever to become educated. He realized, even at this young age, that education would be the only means he would have in order to possibly break free from bondage, both physically and mentally. So if Mrs. Auld would no longer teach him, he would find ways to educate himself. By ingratiating himself to white boys he came in contact with, he got books and other reading materials in order to further his education on his own. He attended church services in the city, further giving him an understanding of the importance of knowledge and the first hand introduction to the strength of oratory in conveying one’s thoughts.
In 1833 he was returned to the plantation of his birth, now owned by Thomas Auld, the former son-in-law of Captain Anthony. Douglass was upset by this turn of events as what little freedom he may have had in Baltimore was now a distant part of his past. Plantation life was rigorous and unforgiving and his new owner became quickly aware that Douglass had a mind of his own. On January 1, 1834 he was sent to work for Edward Covey, a man known as a “slave breaker.” He was his job to condition Douglass to be a useful and agreeable slave. Douglass experienced a mental epiphany when he finally faced down Covey when the two men came to blows. For a slave to exert his will over that of his master usually meant the ultimate punishment of death or the banishment to a crueler place that would be located in the Deep South. But Covey backed down and quietly allowed a separate peace that went unspoken between the two. Eventually Douglass returned to Thomas Auld’s plantation, more determined then ever to find a way to escape his circumstances. His education and understanding of his circumstances made him a totally useless slave to any slaveholder. Having the understanding of the injustice that slaves were inflicted with, he was determined to educate other slaves in order for them to better equip themselves against those injustices. He secretly began teaching slaves the basics of reading, writing, Scripture and the necessity of freedom, conducting these lessons on Sundays and evenings when if was safer to do so.
On New Year’s Day in 1836, Douglass made the daring decision to escape some time during the coming year. With five other slaves, an escape scheme was planned for April 2, 1836, but on that day one of the conspirators betrayed the group and they were rounded up and placed in jail at the county seat in Easton. They could have been executed for their plans, but Thomas Auld could not bring himself to allow that to happen. The other slaves were sent back to the plantation and Douglass was sent back to Baltimore, on the condition that if he performed well in the dockyards, he would receive his freedom by the age of twenty-five.
Douglass immersed himself in his work, gradually earning a small wage for his efforts. He was able to have his own place of residence and continued to educate himself. He met a free woman named Anna Murray who supported him in his endeavors to improve his condition, even though she herself was uneducated. Their decision to marry became the impetus for Douglass to make another escape from slavery. This time he succeeded, boarding a train in Baltimore on September 3, 1838, dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carrying faked “seaman’s protection papers.” The train delivered him to Philadelphia where he then boarded another train for New York City. Anna Murray joined him in New York and they were married on September 15. At the suggestion of David Ruggles, an abolitionist and member of the Underground Railroad, he and Anna moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts where it would be safer for the new fugitive and his wife to live and find work without being caught.