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Frederick Douglass was a slave, writer, diplomat, abolitionist, and one of the most influential activists in American History. Douglass worked with President Lincoln for the abolitionism of slavery and his autobiography titled, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, remains one of the most significant works in American History.

Frederick Douglass

After escaping slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass became a lecturer and leader of the abolitionist movement and was known for his brilliant speeches in which he eloquently and movingly condemned the practice of slavery. He wrote about his own experiences as a slave, and his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, became a best seller. His other works included My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

As well as being a prominent abolitionist, Douglass also supported the women’s suffrage movement and was a good friend of the social reformer and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. He was the first African American to be nominated for Vice President and became first African American US Marshall.

Born into slavery in Maryland in around 1818, Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age. At the age of 12, the wife of his slaveowner started to teach him basic reading and writing, something that his master disapproved of, on the basis that literacy would encourage a desire for freedom. Although his slave-owner put a stop to the lessons, Douglass continued to learn by whatever means he could, including learning from other children in the neighborhood and teaching himself to read and write from newspapers. Douglass suffered many cruelties and physical punishments, including beatings and whippings.

During the time that he was enslaved, Douglass made numerous attempts to escape. In 1837, he met Anna Murray, a free black woman, and fell in love with her. Her status as a free woman encouraged him even more in his attempts to escape. In 1838 he finally managed to escape and his path to freedom took him along the ‘Underground Railroad’, a network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captors. The entire journey took him less than 24 hours. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he described his feelings when he arrived in New York: ‘A new world had opened up to me. 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.’ Once he had settled in New York, Anna Murray joined him and they married. They went on to have five children and stayed together until Anna’s death in 1882. Following her death, Douglass remarried, to Helen Pitts, a white social activist.

In New York, Douglass became a preacher and his brilliant oratory skills were evident in his sermons. He became involved in the abolitionist movement and started to tour as a lecturer – his travels took him as far afield as the United Kingdom and Ireland, where he met the famous nationalist Daniel O’Connell. While he was in England, a group of British abolitionists paid to buy his freedom, and Douglass became legally free.

During the Civil War, Douglass worked for the Unionists, as a recruiter and as an adviser to Lincoln. Douglass’ vision of emancipation was realized when the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, finally abolishing slavery in 1865. A year later, Douglass spoke at the opening of the Emancipation Memorial, where he received a standing ovation.

Douglass died at his home on February 20, 1895, at the age of 77. He had remained active in civil rights up until his death. Throughout his career as a speaker and writer he was the voice of hope for the enslaved and oppressed, and is still remembered today as a symbol of justice and equality.

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Frederick Douglass Accomplishments

  • Led the abolitionist movement which was rewarded with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1863.
  • A talented orator whose speeches included the famous ‘4th July Speech’ in which he described slavery as ‘the great shame and sin of America’.
  • Received a number of political appointments including as an advisor to Lincoln during the Civil War, being the first African American US Marshall and the US Minister to Haiti.

Frederick Douglass Quotes

“The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren - with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide.”

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is organized to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

“Without struggle, there can be no progress.”

“The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery.”

Learn more about people who have influenced history in our Picture Encyclopedia!
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