Frederick Douglass Was The 19th Century’s Original Agitator
February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the lives of black people instrumental in moving the nation and humanity forward: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass… the list is long.
Of Douglass, President Trump recently commented, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
Credit where credit is due, thank you for the inspiration, President Trump. I couldn’t pick a more apt person to talk about in this context.
Douglass did do an amazing job with his life, especially considering it started in impossible circumstances. Born into slavery in 1818, Douglass escaped his captors as a young man. From there he fashioned a life of politics and inspiration as one of our nation’s most cherished agitators.
Born Into Slavery
Talbot County Maryland–That February day his mother gave birth to him in his grandmother’s shack, the deck was already stacked against baby Frederick.
At that time, his name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He kept that name until he freed himself years later.
Douglass’ mother was a slave, his father an unknown white man. His actual heritage, we suspect, included Native American blood on this mother’s side and unknown European blood on his father’s.
In many ways, baby Frederick was the epitome of America’s melting pot. Young Douglass lived with his grandmother until he went to work on a plantation. From there he went to Baltimore, sold to the Auld family.
Sophia Auld, the woman of the house, first taught Douglass to read. He would later consider reading his ticket to freedom, reading whatever he could, even teaching scores of other slaves to read the Bible.
As punishment for doing this, educating slaves, Auld sent Douglass to work for an abusive man, who frequently whipped sixteen-year- old Frederick. It stopped the day Douglass fought back. Not yet a man, he was already an agitator.
After a few failed attempts to escape, Douglass was successful boarding a train. He made it to the northeastern corner of the state, then traveled by foot, ferry and rail until he made it to Philly.
The city of brotherly love was an anti-slavery haven, not far from New York City, where he finally found refuge. There, he connected with a man named David Ruggles, an abolitionist.
It took Douglass fewer than 24 hours to complete this journey. Of his first moments in New York, Douglass later wrote this:
“If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.”
From New York, Douglass was able to send for his betrothed, Anna Murray, who was already a free woman. In 1838, they married in New Bedford, Massachusetts, under the name Johnson to conceal their identity. They changed it to Douglass after they settled.
By the judgment of many at the time, what they did was illegal, from the escape to the marriage, but Douglass was an agitator.
Ascended From Poverty to The Pulpit
No surprise, Douglass joined groups of abolitionists. He even a church where Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman counted themselves as parishioners. He took various roles within the church, even became a licensed preacher in 1839.
In 1840 he spoke at a station in the Underground Railroad, which led to more speaking engagements. He suffered attacks from pro-slavery supporters but still spoke as part of the American Anti-Slavery Society in the east and midwest.
After publishing his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, friends of Douglass expressed concerns about his popularity.
His voice as an educated black man undermined the belief of pro-slavers that one could not educate a black man. It was also possible Auld, his former owner, might try to claim his “property.”
In August of 1845, Douglass set sail for Ireland, where he remained until 1847.
Became a Voice of Inspiration
In ’47, when Douglass returned from Ireland, he started his own abolitionist periodical, The North Star. There, Douglass argued that we should uphold the words in Constitution as the argument to end slavery.
He also attended women’s rights conventions, spoke in favor of women’s suffrage. To Douglass, his right to vote was no more important than women’s.
He later compromised his position when the issue actually hit the table after the Civil War, accepting a first step as the admittance of a black male vote.
Up to the Civil War and after, Douglass spoke with eloquence about emancipation for all blacks and the right for suffrage. Wherever he spoke, Douglass drew diverse crowds of men and women. He even ran for office in ’72; the first black Vice Presidential candidate.
In 1876 he delivered the keynote speech at the Emancipation Memorial. He criticized Lincoln for being ignorant about blacks but praised him as a good man for keeping his word about ending slavery.
Douglass continued his work an agitator until his death in 1895. Like a good American, he spoke with candor against politicians and religious leaders when they failed to do the right thing.
Thousands attended his funeral in D.C, at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.