Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. As a young man, he became convinced that slavery was wrong and that all people should be free. Douglass was a powerful speaker and skilled writer. He devoted his life to ending slavery.
BORN A SLAVE
Frederick was born in 1817 on a plantation in Maryland. His original name was Frederick Augustus Bailey. When Frederick was eight years old, he was sent to Baltimore to work for a new master.
The wife of the new master began teaching Frederick to read from the Bible. But she stopped when her husband complained. He did not want a slave to learn to read and write.
READING IN SECRET
Frederick taught himself to read by secretly studying books that belonged to his master’s son. At the age of 13, he bought his first book. It was a collection of famous speeches.
He read the speeches over and over. That’s how he learned the art of public speaking. One speech taught him that some people thought slavery was wrong. They wanted to abolish it.
WORKING IN SHIPYARDS
Frederick was a defiant teenager. He was often beaten or whipped by his white supervisors. But Frederick remained independent, so his master sent him away to work in the Baltimore shipyards. Frederick taught himself to write by tracing the outlines of letters on the sides of the ships.
Frederick met Anna Murray in Baltimore. She was a free black person. Frederick wanted to be free too. He got papers that falsely said he was a free man. Frederick then boarded a train for New York. Slavery was illegal in New York and in other Northern states. Frederick pretended he was a sailor returning home.
He arrived safely in New York City. Anna soon joined Frederick and they were married. The couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Frederick hoped to work in the shipyards. To avoid capture, he changed his name. He took his new last name, Douglass, from a favorite poem.
RISE TO FAME
Frederick Douglass joined the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The members asked him to speak at one of their meetings.
Douglass gave a moving speech about the evils of slavery. The society hired him to travel around the north and speak at antislavery meetings. He soon became the nation’s leading black opponent of slavery.
Douglass spoke so well some people doubted he had been a slave. They did not think slaves were educated enough to be public speakers.
To prove them wrong, Douglass wrote his autobiography. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published in 1845. It described his childhood as a slave. His autobiography became a famous antislavery book.
Douglass’s fame caused him problems. He feared his owner would force him to return to slavery. Douglass and his family fled to England. They lived there two years. In 1847, English friends purchased Douglass from his owner. That allowed him to return safely to America.
The family moved to Rochester, New York, where Douglass published an antislavery newspaper.
After the Civil War began in 1861, Douglass urged President Abraham Lincoln to let black men join the Union Army. Then, he helped organize two regiments of black soldiers. Two of his sons enlisted in the army.
Frederick Douglass was a man of remarkable courage and determination. Through hard work, he overcame ignorance, poverty, and prejudice. He fought tirelessly against slavery and became the nation’s leading spokesman for black Americans.