Abolitionist, author, newspaper editor.
Frederick Douglass was many things in his 77 years and continues to be a powerful historic figure. Join me this week as I begin a dive into the life of one of the greatest and most respected fighters in history, Fredrick Douglass.
Biography.com Editors. “Frederick Douglass Biography.” The Biography.com website. A&E Television Networks. (LINK)
Blight, David.Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. United States: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2006.
Frederick Douglass, [Letter], Victoria Hotel, Belfast, January 1, 1846. To William Lloyd Garrison. Foner, Philip (ed). Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. New York: International Publishers, 1950. Vol. I, p. 125. (LINK)
Frederick Douglass Papers. Library of Congress. (LINK)
Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. "The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War."Social Education56, 2 (February 1992): 118-120. [Revised and updated in 1999 by Budge Weidman.] (LINK)
History.com Editors. “Frederick Douglass.” History. October 27, 2009. (LINK)
The North star. (Rochester, NY), Dec. 3 1847. (LINK)
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“The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man, except as a piece of property.” Frederick Douglass.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps. Welcome back.
One of the most impressive and well known fighters for black Americans, Frederick Douglass was many things to many people throughout his life. A former slave; newspaper editor; abolitionist; author. But also a husband; a father; a powerful advocate for black rights and perhaps lover. A man who was born in the worst circumstances who managed through both the strength of will and a bit of good fortune to not only emancipate himself but to spend his life crusading for the rights of others and bending the ears of presidents, Frederick Douglass’ life is both amazing in its achievements and a stunning example of the pain and and degradation experienced by black americans during this time period.
In approaching the life of Frederick Douglass, I was a bit daunted. How do you cover a man whose reputation and stature is as high and well regarded as him? What else is there to say?
However, it is exactly because Douglass was such a monumental figure during his lifetime that he deserves coverage. Of course, his life and experiences are so vast, it is impossible to cover in just one episode. So this week, I am starting the dive into the life of Frederick Douglass.
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Before being known as published author and staunch abolitionist, Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland. His birth name, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey gives us no clue as to his potential paternity. His birthdate was never officially confirmed, however it is believed he was born in 1818 and later chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th. He spent his youth with his grandmother before being assigned to the household of those who claimed his ownership.
Frederick Bailey, as he was known then, seemed to experience a sense of abandonment with his new assignment. His mother, also a slave, was not a consistent presence in his life and as a result, he bonded heavily with his grandmother. Once she fulfilled her orders to deliver him to the main house, Frederick struggled. For the rest of his life, Frederick would seek the comfort and support of the women in his life and always find a reason to disagree or tussle with the men he came across.
Upon reaching the slave master home, Bailey was given a supremely rare gift in being taught to read and write. In a defiance of social and sometimes legal custom, the mistress of the household, Sophia Auld, taught young Frederick the alphabet, sparking a curiosity that would continue throughout his lifetime.
Though born into a system that enslaved human beings, Frederick Bailey seemed to break the mold from the start. He got into scuffles in his youth, never quite learning is quote unquote place in the slavery society. Those who claimed ownership of him became so frustrated with his independent spirit, they sent him to a known slave breaker, Edward Covey. Frederick’s time with Covey was rough and led to a violent altercation which he later included in his memoir. Unfortunately for those who wished to quell Frederick and his independent spirit, he was not easily broken.
Throughout his time as an enslaved individual, Frederick experienced a number of close calls where he could have earned himself a sale to the deep south. However, he was fortunate and managed to avoid a fate that would have likely eliminated any ability for him to become the powerhouse for change he is so well known for.
The constant fighting and attempts to break Bailey into submission weighed on the young man and he decided he could no longer take it and began planning his escape. Bailer would attempt to flee twice before being successful in 1838. It was with the aid and assistance of his future wife, Anna Murray, a free black woman, that Frederick was finally able to secure his freedom. On September 3rd, armed with a train ticket, false identification papers and a sailor’s uniform, Frederick Bailey made his escape. Traveling first to New York where he and Anna were married, then on to New Bedford, Massachusetts, the self-emancipated former slave would leave behind his former identity and take on a new surname, Douglass.
Changing names was not uncommon for individuals who escaped their bonds as changing their identity meant an extra layer of protection and Douglass was no different. While some opted to change both their first and last names, Douglass decided he wanted to maintain Frederick and would only change his last name. The name Douglass came from poet Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake where a character had the name Douglas. Frederick decided he liked the sound of the name and adding an extra S at the end, finalized the creation of his new identity.
The Douglass’ felt fairly safe in their new town; not only was there a large free black population, but New Bedford was filled with Quakers, who were known for their abolitionist sentiments. Douglass could focus on finding work to support his family and not be as concerned with capture; he did just that, finding work loading oil into casks bound for New York.
1839 saw the birth of his first child, a daughter named Rosetta on June 24th. She was followed by his first son Lewis, born on October 9th 1840. The Douglass’ would have five children in total, losing only one in their youth due to illness, a good ratio considering the time period.
In New Bedford, Douglass had the opportunity to attend abolitionist meetings where he met another powerhouse in the abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison. A man who took to the cause of abolition with religious fervor, Garrison published the activist newspaper The Liberator and helped guide the still inexperienced Douglass in evoking the right sentiment in his speeches arguing the abolitionist cause. While Douglass discovered his love of oratory prior to meeting Garrison while serving as a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, his relationship with Garrison and his staunch supporters known as Garrisonians helped propel Douglass into the forefront of the emerging movement.
Douglass first learned of Garrison through his paper The Liberator and viewed Garrison as somewhat of a hero before the two ever met. As Douglass biographer David Blight notes, quote: “for Douglass, Garrison represented a moral voice - from a white person - against slavery, the likes of which he had only dreamed. He could now truly find out what “abolition” meant, perhaps even imagine a purpose or a vocation in its sacred circles” end quote. And while their relationship would turn sour in future years, for the moment Douglass was in awe of Garrison and took the man’s advice and encouragement seriously.
Douglass hit the road as a proud member of the Garrisonians and joined the speaking circuit, sharing his story and highlighting the traumas of the slave experience. While he was fearful of capture, he nonetheless traveled across the country and honed his skills as speaker and advocate for justice. What started out as a trial run to see if he had the chops, developed into a lifelong commitment to the spoken and written word. Again from historian and Douglass biographer David Blight quote: “The young Douglass had not only found his calling, but he quickly emerged as a rising star in the first great reform movement of American history… This was only the beginning of a more than fifty-year career for this incomparable orator” end quote.
To say Douglass was busy on the speaking circuit would be quite an understatement. The new crusader for abolition would travel nonstop for several years, hitting hundreds of towns and cities, sometimes giving two speeches per day. In one tour over a two month period in 1842, for example, Douglass stopped in at least forty-two different places to give his story. He seemed to have boundless energy and put all he could into speaking to as many people as possible to increase the movement’s momentum. It was also exceptionally dangerous; not only was Douglass a black man taking white america to task for the continued allowance of slavery and threatening a way of life cherished by many, he was also an escaped slave. Douglass would be verbally and physically attacked throughout his career, including one violent encounter in 1843 that left him with a broken hand.
Despite the risks, Douglass found speaking in front of crowds was satisfying and enjoyable. But he also began thinking of different ways to share his story; as someone who had always had a love for the written word Douglass began to develop the first edition of his memoir, Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass which he published in 1845. His narrative provided an inside look to not only his life, but of the experiences shared by many held in bondage and the insults that came with it. In Narratives, Douglass opens with the knowledge that he, nor many of his fellow slaves, know his exact birthdate. This was something that haunted him his entire life, even prompting Douglass to ask his former owner later in life if he knew of his birthdate.
Narratives sold five thousand copies in just four months, which made it a smash hit. The publication of Narratives provided Douglass the opportunity to tour the world, giving talks in Great Britain and Ireland and championing the abolitionist cause. Douglass was not alone on his tour; saddled with handlers, Douglass struggled with the perceived barriers and attempts at control of him and his message. Again from Blight quote: “he was trapped in a deal that both offered him the world and stifled the kind of freedom he perhaps cherished most - the freedom of mind and of the words he would choose to express himself” end quote. The trip overseas is where the relationship between Douglass and Garrison began to strain.
Douglass was thankful to Garrison and the work he did, but also began feeling he was being censored and unable to share his story the way he wanted it told. It would take a few more years for the fallout to be complete, but the cracks were made during the overseas trip. However his time abroad also gave Douglass a new perspective of not only himself, but of the country of his birth. In a letter addressed to Garrison, Douglas expressed his appreciation of the foreign locales he visited and contrasted his experiences between Europe and America, writing quote: “as to nation, I belong to none. I have no protection at home, or resting-place abroad. The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave, and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently. So that I am an outcast from the society of my childhood, and an outlaw in the land of my birth,” end quote. Continuing his comparative analysis of the two nations, Douglass wrote quote: “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,” end quote.
While overseas, Douglass was able to make his emancipation legal, securing a payment to his former owner thanks to donations from fellow abolitionists. For a payment of $711.66, Douglass was at last considered legally free. Finally unburdened from the fear of capture and return to enslavement, and with the memory of being treated as a man and not someone’s property while overseas, Douglass began to speak and write in a more militant tone in his push for the elimination of slavery.
Speaking at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in a room filled with prominent abolitionists, Douglass shared his outrage and anger at America, saying quote: “I have no love for America, as such I have no patriotism. I have no country,” end quote. He continued his anger, stating his only ties to the country were his family and his connection to the millions of others who were also in a state of forced bondage. In a jaw dropping moment, Douglass event went so far as to call for the country’s end, saying quote: “I desire to see its overthrow as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments,” end quote.
Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was ready to take on the fight for abolition in his own way and began to explore starting his own paper. Garrison, who had for so long been seen as a mentor and friend, was unsupportive of the initiative, and tried to talk Douglass out of the endeavor, emphasizing his skills as an orator. Despite this, Douglass remained steadfast in his wants and worked towards procuring the necessary materials to launch his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star on December 3, 1847.
In it’s premiere edition, The North Star explained its reason for being, quote: “it has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression” end quote.
And while a forceful and needed voice in the cause of abolition, The North Star struggled financially and never became a method of revenue for Douglass, who had to rely on his lecture series and donations from affluent supporters to keep the paper in production. Despite the pitfalls, Douglass continued publishing The North Star for several years, eventually merging it with the Liberty Party Paper in 1851. Douglass would claim the title of newspaper editor and writer for over a decade.
And here, dear listeners, is where I think we will pause in Douglass’ narrative. Join me again next week as I continue exploring Douglass and his evolution as an abolitionist.
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