Who was Frederick Douglass?

Who was Frederick Douglass

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This fact-filled overview of Frederick Douglass’ life was published alongside his obituary on February 21, 1895. In keeping with notions common to this era, the story includes two references to an egregiously biased and long-disproven notion regarding the relative intelligence of blacks versus whites.

We have, however, maintained the text as originally published, because we believe the racist statements of the time — even when printed alongside such high praise — ought not be forgotten.

An eventful career: Frederick Douglass, the noted freedman, orator and diplomat (1895)
Fred Douglass’ Early Struggles, Fight Against Slavery and Well-Earned Honors.

Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in Talbot county, Maryland, in 1817, was the one conspicuous anti-slavery agitator who spoke of the wrongs and cruelty of slavery from personal experience.

Born of a slave mother, he inherited the Anglo-Saxon intellect from his white father, and at an early age manifested great intellectual capacity. Learning to read and write while yet a slave, and before he was 10 years of age, he hired his own time for three dollars a week from his Baltimore master until he was 21 years of age, when he fled from slavery.

He made his way to New York and thence to New Bedford, where he married and supported himself by labor about the wharves. Here he made the acquaintance of William Lloyd Garrison, the anti-slavery agitator, who aided him in his efforts at self-education.


Touring as a speaker

Changing his name from Lloyd to Douglass, the self-emancipated slave attended an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, in the summer of 1841, where he made his first speech in public, which showed him to be possessed of unusual oratorical powers. He was at once employed by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society as a lecturer, and in this capacity traveled far and wide, attracting large audiences by his graphic portrayal of the hardships of slavery.

At the end of four years, he visited Europe, lecturing to interested and enthusiastic audiences in the principal towns of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

As a consequence of this tour, his English friends contributed $750 to secure his manumission by law, and from thenceforth, even the stigma of being a fugitive from service no longer attached to him.

His reputation as an eloquent speaker was by this time firmly established, but he was ambitious for even a wider influence, and in 1847, he began the publication of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, at Rochester, N.Y. The title of this journal, which was a weekly, was changed later to the North Star, and it was published for several years.

MORE: 100 years ago, civil rights leader Booker T Washington was interviewed by author H G Wells about America’s racial divide. Here’s how it went.

Frederick Douglass with his grandson who is holding a violin, ca. 1894
Frederick Douglass with his grandson who is holding a violin, ca. 1894

For supposed participation in the John Brown raid, in 1850, his extradition was demanded by Governor Wise, of Virginia, of the Governor of Michigan, in which state he then resided. To avoid all possible complications, he made a trip to England, remaining several months. He returned to Rochester and continued the publication of his paper, and upon the breaking out of the civil war, in 1861, became a tireless advocate of emancipation and the employment of colored troops.

In 1863, he assisted in enlisting colored troops, notably the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Regiments.

ALSO SEE: America’s history of slave auctions: See some of the horrible old ads from the 1700s and 1800s actually offering people for sale

After the war

At the close of the war, he became a popular lyceum lecturer. In 1870 he became editor of the National Era in Washington, his sons, Lewis and Frederick, succeeding him in its publication.

He was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Commission to Santo Domingo in 1871 by President Grant, and on his return, was made a member of the Territorial Council of the District of Columbia. He was an elector-at-large from the State of New York in 1872, being deputed to carry the returns to Washington.

In 1876 he was appointed United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, an office he held for five years. He was Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia from 1881 to 1886, and was appointed Minister to Hayti by President Harrison.

Frederick Douglass portrait

His marriage to a white woman a few years ago created a social sensation in Washington. He made a third visit to England In 1886, since which he has lived a retired life at Washington.

Frederick Douglas was far above the average of his race in intellectual capacity, a fact that served to alienate a large section of the colored people from him in his later life, when he had achieved moderate wealth and an exalted position in the public service.

In spite of this, however, he remained a devoted friend of his own race to the last, and will be rightfully regarded in all the future as one of its most conspicuous representatives.

ALSO SEE: Juneteenth: What it means, and why it’s still celebrated

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