Frederick Douglass Biography: From Slave to Abolitionist

Born a slave, he rose to become a prominent abolitionist, statesman, author, and respected figure around the world. The most photographed African American of the 19th Century, he was also a recognizable figure even as his very identity put him at risk for much of his life.


Frederick Douglass’ story is one of perseverance, intellect, and an unending desire for freedom and justice.

Early Life

Frederick Douglass wasn’t born with that name, nor was he born on the day he later adopted as his birthday. At birth, he was christened Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. The date he was born has been lost to history…but later in life he decided that February 14th would be the day on which he marked his entrance into the world.

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I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it,” is what he wrote in A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

We do know, though, that Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland, likely the son of a union between his mother and their owner.

Douglass’ mother was known for her intelligence, and is widely considered to be the only slave who could read or write in the area of Maryland where she lived.

But Douglass never really got to know his mother. It was common for infants born to slaves to be separated from their mothers soon after birth. Taking care of children took up energy and time that younger women could use doing hard work on the farm or plantation…older women who weren’t able to do such physical labor could take care of children and slave masters wouldn’t see a drop in productivity…

So Douglass, like many slaves, grew up without his mother. He was sent to live with his grandmother, Betty Bailey. She was also the caretaker for twelve other children. Douglass’ mother was enslaved at a different plantation…he only saw her a handful of times before he was removed from his grandmother’s house.

It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

At around age 7, Douglass was separated from the family he knew. He was taken from his grandmother’s home and sent to Wye Plantation. At Wye Plantation he joined a thousand other slaves spread across twenty farms owned by Master Lloyd. Douglass didn’t work in the fields…he was still young and so didn’t go out into the fields. Instead, he cared for the family’s cows and tended to the house’s garden and yard.

While he was there, his mother died.

And then Douglass was uprooted again. As a slave, Douglass was forced to move and to serve at the whims of his masters. This time, he was sent to Baltimore to serve the family of Hugh Auld in Baltimore.

Here, Douglass followed in his mother’s footsteps….he learned to read and write. His journey to literacy started when Sofia Auld, Hugh’s wife, began teaching him the letters of the alphabet. It was unusual for a slave owner to take so much interest in the education of a slave, and Hugh Auld did not like that his wife was doing so.

Poster from Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau, 1943

Poster from Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. News Bureau, 1943

Plus, Auld thought that if slaves could read and write they would be more likely to want their freedom, and more likely to seek it. Douglass called Auld’s argument against literacy his “first decidedly antislavery lecture.”

Unfortunately, Sofia came around to her husband’s way of thinking, and Douglass’ tutoring sessions had to come to an end.

But Douglass believed that

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”


And so he kept learning. He taught himself to read, grabbing any publication he could that had words on it. Newspapers and political pamphlets joined books in his collection, and Douglass began to learn much more than just how to read…he was learning about the events of the country and world.

Among the publications he devoured was The Columbian Orator. The book was an 18th century anthology that was used as a literacy teaching tool in classrooms. For Douglass, though, the book offered more than a lesson on reading and writing  – it gave him insight into ideas about freedom and human rights.

Douglass didn’t want to keep the power of literacy to himself. He started teaching other slaves from nearby plantations to read during Sunday School using the New Testament. Dozens of slaves would show up each week to learn. Amazingly, this went unnoticed for nearly six months. But when it was discovered that Douglass was teaching fellow slaves to read and write, the slave owners were beside themselves with anger.

One Sunday, while Douglass was teaching the fuming owners burst into the makeshift school. They were intent that their slaves would not learn to read and write … and they used violence to get their point across. They used stones and clubs to end that Sunday’s meeting, and to end Douglass’ teaching for the time being.

He was still a teenager when this happened, and already making his mark on the world.  By the time Douglass hit his teens, he had also been moved from owner to owner and plantation to plantation several times already. In his late teens, Douglass was sent to be a slave for Edward Covey.

Covey subjected Douglass to violence, regularly beating and whipping him. In his book My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass entitles the chapter devoted to his time on Covey’s plantation as “Covey: The Negro Breaker.” He writes of the beatings he sustained at Covey’s hands:

I had not been in his possession three whole days, before he subjected me to a most brutal chastisement. Under his heavy blows, blood flowed freely, and wales were left on my back as large as my little finger. The sores on my back, from this flogging, continued for weeks, for they were kept open by the rough and coarse cloth which I wore for shirting.”

Eventually, Douglass began to fight back. One day, he fought back. He gave Covey a taste of his own medicine and the man never tried to use violence to control Douglass again.

First Free Years

Douglass knew he couldn’t continue life as a slave.  Beyond his own beliefs and desire for freedom, he had also met a woman who inspired him to seek freedom. Ann Murray was a free black woman from Baltimore, and she not only inspired Douglass’ freedom, but fell in love with him. The two later married.

In 1836, Douglass first attempted to escape from slavery. When his plan was discovered, he was thrown into jail. Returned to his owner, Douglass remained a slave for two more years before he was able to make another escape attempt.

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On September 3, 1838, Douglass took the risk that he knew could either start his life as a free man, or end it all together.

I felt assured that if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one. It would seal my fate as a slave forever,” he later wrote.

He had obtained papers showing him to be a free man, a risky move in and of itself. The papers belonged to a black sailor, and so Douglass had to act the part if he wanted to be successful. Before leaving his master’s property in Baltimore, Douglass costumed himself in a red shirt, black cravat, and a sailor’s hat.

While he disguised himself with sailor’s clothes, the plan still had one big flaw – Douglass wasn’t a great physical match for the description on the papers. If an official stopped to closely consider the measurements and description, his journey to freedom would be over.

Douglass boarded a train to Philadelphia, and, as expected, he faced an inspection. When he was asked to show free papers, Douglass handed over his sailor’s identification and said,

I never carry my free papers to sea with me… I have a paper with the American eagle on it, that will carry me round the world.”

The answer and the papers were enough for the conductor. Douglass was free to stay on the train and continue his journey. But he still had to make it through slave states where he risked arrest. After an anxious journey, Douglass stepped off the train in New York and made his way to a group of Underground Railroad activists. He was in a free state, but not a free man. He was technically a fugitive, and so could still be arrested. The danger wasn’t over for him just because he was in a free state.

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.

Nevertheless, he was ecstatic to be in a free state.

I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil…There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon 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. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe.”

The Underground Railroad activists provided him shelter for a day, and got word to his beloved Anna that he was free. She made her way up from Baltimore, and the two were married in New York. Within days, the couple was off further north to Massachusetts, where life was somewhat safer for a fugitive slave. There was still prejudice, however, and Douglass had to work hard to find even menial jobs to earn a living.

English: Photograph of Anna Murray Douglass (1813–1882), the first wife of Frederick Douglass

English: Photograph of Anna Murray Douglass (1813–1882), the first wife of Frederick Douglass

While in New Bedford, Douglass became a licensed preacher, and he taught Sunday school and served as church sexton.

He also became involved in the abolitionist movement. Douglass was inspired by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and avidly read his newspaper “The Liberator.”

The first time Douglass was asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting he was frightened. He had been unexpectedly asked to give a speech at the Massachussets Anti-Slavery Society’s national convention. Through his nervousness, he gave an incredibly eloquent and thoughtful speech. Unlike the white abolitionists who gave most anti-slavery speeches, Douglass could speak personally about the pain and brutality of slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist and one of Douglass's first friends in the North

William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist and one of Douglass’s first friends in the North

Douglass’ skill at public speaking was quickly noticed as he talked at more and more anti-slavery meetings, and soon he was a key part of the abolitionist movement, telling his story and rousing crowds to the cause.

In 1843, he joined the American Anti-Slavery Society to tour the midwestern United States and speak to the importance of abolishing slavery. They traveled for six months, spreading their message and, in doing so, often putting themselves in danger.

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.

This was two decades before the Civil War, and slavery supporters wanted to make themselves heard. They turned violent on some occasions, and Douglass had his hand broken during one melee in Indiana.

Douglass didn’t only put his oratory skills to use for the abolitionist movement, though. He also wrote his autobiography, telling the story of what it was like to grow up and live as a slave. Titled “Narrative: The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass,” the book was a huge success. It had nine reprintings and was translated so it could be sold in Europe, too.

The success of the book came at a cost, though. It attracted attention to Douglass – and he was still not a free man in the eyes of the law.

Instead of going into hiding in the United States, though, Douglass headed to Europe. There, he was safe from arrest and could continue spreading his message and telling his story. During a two year tour of England and Ireland he raised his profile both back home and in Europe. Crowds came to see him speak, and such was his appeal that his European supporters began raising money to buy his freedom in America.

Douglass was also impressed with Europe. He was treated like a person there – unlike he was at home.

Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!’”

His supporters were successful in raising the funds to buy Douglass’ freedom, and he was able to return to America, to his wife, and to the cause of freeing the millions of slaves in the country.

He started publishing his own paper – The North Star – and also took up causes of freedom beyond the abolitionist movement. He spoke at the women’s rights Seneca Falls Convention, calling for women to be granted the right to vote. He also became active in calling for the desegregation of schools – a full century before Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court.

Civil War

Because of his activism and perpetual presence in the abolitionist and other movements, Douglass was a highly recognized figure in America when the Civil War began.

During the war, Douglass was a fierce advocate of allowing African Americans to fight for the union.

A war undertaken and brazenly carried for the perpetual enslavement of the colored men, calls logically and loudly for the colored men to help suppress it.”

Douglass even had the ear of Abraham Lincoln, and was able to speak to the President about his views on African American troops. He used his publications and speeches to call for the inclusion of African Americans in the army. For two years he hammered on the issue.

In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and African Americans were able to join the army.  Douglass and his family were ready – two of his sons signed up to fight, and a third became active in recruitment. Douglass himself shifted his message from encouraging the inclusion of African Americans in the military to encouraging African Americans to sign up to fight.

1863 Broadside listing Douglass as a speaker calling men of color to arms

1863 Broadside listing Douglass as a speaker calling men of color to arms

When time’s ample curtain shall fall upon our national tragedy, and our hillsides and valleys shall neither redden with the blood nor whiten with the bones of kinsmen and countrymen who have fallen in the sanguinary and wicked strife; when grim visaged war has smoothed his wrinkled front and our country shall have regained its normal condition as a leader of nations in the occupation and blessings of peace — and history shall record the names of heroes and martyrs — who bravely answered the call of patriotism and Liberty — against traitors, thieves and assassins — let it not be said that in the long list of glory, composed of men of all nations — there appears the name of no colored man.”

When the Civil War ended and slavery was outlawed, Douglass did not step away from public life. He believed there was still much work to be done in the fight for freedom.

Douglass in 1847, around 29 years of age

Douglass in 1847, around 29 years of age

He was appointed President of the Freedman’s Bank which helped promote economic development in the newly-free African American communities. He also continued speaking around the country, and was active in supporting Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 campaign for the presidency.

Then, in 1872, Douglass was nominated as Victoria Woodhull’s vice presidential running mate. He didn’t even know he had been nominated – he didn’t seek out – but the Equal Rights Party put him on the ticket nonetheless. It wouldn’t be his last appearance in a presidential race – in 1888 he became the first African American to receive a vote for president at a major party’s convention.

His fame and his outspoken activism still made him a target for sinister activities, however. The same year he was nominated as a vice presidential candidate, his family’s New York home was targeted by an arsonist. The family was safe, but the fire showed that he – nor his African American brethren – was still not safe from violence even years after the civil war had ended.

Later Life

Douglass spent the last two decades of his life in Washington DC, where he served as a United States Marshal with an appointment from President Hayes. He and Anna lived in a home called Cedar Hill.

Anna, his first love and his inspiration for his escape from slavery, died in 1882. Douglass remarried, this time to a much younger white woman. His children were upset, as was his new wife’s family.

During the 1880s, he continued traveling both the country and the world, giving speeches on a number of political issues. He also kept writing and issued a new edition of his autobiography in 1881. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was his third book – he had also published My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855.

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It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

The political appointments kept coming, too. He served in diplomatic positions, as Recorder of Deeds for DC, and a commissioner of the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Douglass was speaking and crusading for rights until the end of his life. In 1895, he gave a speech at the National Council of Women in DC. He was incredibly well-received. But it was the last speech he would ever give. Shortly after the speech, he had a heart attack and passed away. He was 77 years old.

Frederick Douglass after 1884 with his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass (sitting). The woman standing is her sister Eva Pitts.

Frederick Douglass after 1884 with his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass (sitting). The woman standing is her sister Eva Pitts.

Thousands paid their respects at his funeral in DC. Douglass’ body was then returned to Rochester, New York, where he was buried next to Anna.

Frederick Douglass risked his life for freedom. Not only when he escaped slavery, but every time he put himself out there as a public figure advocating for an end to slavery, the right to vote, and civil rights for all.

We’ll leave you with some of his own powerful words:

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

Frederick Douglass Video Biography

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