This is the grave of Frederick Douglass.
Born into slavery sometime around February 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass, like most slaves, could only guess at his actual age. His father was a white man who had raped his mother, as was an everyday occurrence under slavery. His mother died when he was seven. She lived on a different plantation and he only recalled seeing her a few times. He mostly lived with his grandmother as a child. He was then given to a family member of his master who lived in Baltimore. This gave him a different experience than most slaves. There were lots of slaves in Maryland, but the overall percentage of slaves compared to the population at large in that state was declined consistently in the nineteenth century. That was especially true because of Baltimore’s growth as a major American city. This also meant that Douglass spent a lot of time around free people, both black and white. Urban slaves usually also had more daily freedom than rural slaves, often contracted out to employers to which they paid a portion of their wages. Douglass long said he considered himself very lucky to grow up in this environment and have an idea of what a different life might look like.
The family member Douglass’ master loaned him to started teaching him to read as well; for much of the white South, there was no greater sin than giving slaves the power to read. But she her husband intervened and she stopped teaching him to read. Still, he learned more from white neighborhood children, slowly mastering the arts of reading and writing. He also started teaching other slaves to read. In 1833, Douglass’ master, Thomas Auld, felt the need to break this young slave of his spirit. So he sent him out to a man named Edward Covey, a professional slavebreaker. It was this man’s job to beat the hell out of slaves so that they would do whatever their master said in the future. Covey did beat him and beat him good. Until one day, Douglass snapped. He simply refused to be beaten anymore. Instead, he beat up Covey in a brutal battle of wills and strength. The thing is, Covey couldn’t do anything about it but nurse his considerable wounds. If Covey said anything, it would show that a slave had beaten him and he would lose his job and his respect in the white community. In Douglass’ first autobiography, this is the most critical passage, the ultimate expression of black masculinity against the unbelievable oppression he and everyone else faced daily.
From that point forward, Douglass looked to escape for good. He tried and failed a couple of times. But in 1838, he fell in a love with a free woman named Anna Murray, who he would later marry. He hopped a train in Baltimore, got within 20 miles of the Pennsylvania border, put on a sailor’s uniform she had given him, and used identification papers he had bought of a free sailor to escape. Douglass and Murray married soon after and remained so until her death 44 years later.
Douglass and his now wife moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, an abolitionist center and he almost immediately threw himself into freeing his people. In 1839, he began writing for The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison‘s groundbreaking newspaper. In 1841, Douglass began speaking publicly, quickly overcoming nerves to become the most powerful speaker the abolitionist movement had ever seen. He traveled the nation speaking, sometimes with hostile crowds in the audience. Once, in Pendleton, Indiana, a mob chased him and broke his hand before he was rescued. It never fully healed. In 1845, he published his amazing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, his first autobiography. This stunning book, already referenced above, did more than anything before it to pull people toward abolitionism. If you haven’t read it, it needs to be at the top of your reading list. He used the funds to buy his own freedom from his master, who course wanted him back. Douglass began speaking in Europe as well, taking his first tour of Britain and Ireland in 1845, wowing the crowds. He returned to the U.S. in 1847 and started his own abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, New York, where he now lived. Funded mostly by the English, which gave Douglass significant editorial freedom, he lambasted the American Colonization Society and its ridiculous and racist attempts to send what were now definitively black Americans to Africa.
Douglass and his wife also remained very active in direct action. They helped around 400 people escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad from their home in Rochester. In 1847, he also split from Garrison, claiming that one could use the Constitution as a weapon against slavery, as opposed to Garrison, who used to burn copies of the document in public and proclaim it a deal with the devil that had to be scrapped entirely. Douglass also was more progressive on other issues than many other male abolitionists, speaking out at the Seneca Falls Convention in favor of women’s suffrage.
In 1852, Douglass gave perhaps most famous address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” In it, he lambasted the hypocrisy of white Americans while also stating the equality of all Americans and the potential for the Constitution to confirm that. Here is a piece of that speech:
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. Take the American slave-trade, which, we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year, by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states, this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government, as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words, from the high places of the nation, as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade, as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the laws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish themselves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass without condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.
Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and America religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh-jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul! The crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow the drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.
I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming hand-bills headed “Cash for Negroes.” These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners. Ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.
The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number have been collected here, a ship is chartered, for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.
He fought for desegregated schools in the North as well, especially in New York, where he lived. He also met with John Brown shortly before his epic raid on Harpers’ Ferry. Douglass was generally supportive of Brown’s radicalism but also saw the obvious flaws in Brown’s plans and refused to go along and worried that violence would just inflame anti-black hatred among whites. However, Douglass’ top assistant did join the party and of course was killed in doing so. Like many of Brown’s close associates, Douglass fled to Canada after the raid, then going on for another speaking tour in Britain.
When the Civil War started, Douglass and other abolitionists urged Lincoln to see the war for what it actually was–a war to end slavery. Of the four major sections of the nation’s population, three knew the war was about slavery. Southern whites committed treason to defend slavery. Slaves knew they had their chance at freedom whenever Union troops showed up. And northern blacks knew that this war was the ultimate act over the form by which Americans would live. Only northern whites, including Lincoln, were unsure. This caused no shortage of frustration and anger toward Lincoln. But as the president moved toward emancipation, Douglass was there to urge him along. Describing the wait for emancipation, Douglass stated, “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky … we were watching … by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day … we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.” He also urged Lincoln to arm African-Americans, knowing many would lay their lives on the line to free their southern brothers and sisters, as they did. Still, Douglass found Lincoln tremendously frustrating and supported a third party abolitionist campaign by John C. Frémont in the 1864 presidential election because Lincoln had not endorsed black suffrage.
After the war, Douglass became the senior figure in the black freedom struggle, the light to which all were compared. He continued his unflagging fight for black equality. Unfortunately, while Douglass supported the 15th Amendment, large sections of the women’s suffrage movement, opposed it because discriminated against women. Douglass admitted this was true, but realized that it was still a gigantic advancement for democracy. Elizabeth Cady Stanton would use increasingly racist language in outrage, effectively asking white men how they could allow those scary sex-crazed dumb black men to have the vote and not morally pure white women.
Douglass attempted to build institutions for freedmen in the South, serving as the president of the Freedmen’s Savings Bank. However, this was something of a disaster, as so many banks were during these years, undercapitalized and not properly managed, going under within a few years, with total losses to those unfortunate enough to trust it with their meager savings. Douglass was a big supporter of Ulysses Grant’s presidential campaign in 1868, hoping to get Reconstruction on the right track and suppress the anti-black violence raging through the South, which Grant did, at least to some extent. Desperate for somewhere for blacks to live without threat of violence, Douglass unfortunately supported Grant’s plan to annex Santo Domingo (today, the Dominican Republic) so that ex-slaves could move there, a situation not so different than the Liberian escapade he had previously opposed.
In 1872, the Equal Rights Party, led by Victoria Woodhull, nominated Douglass for the VP on their radical ticket, under Woodhull. But they had never actually told Douglass they were doing this and he repudiated it. That year, someone burned down his home in Rochester. Not even a great man like Douglass could escape continued racist violence. In the aftermath, he moved to Washington, D.C. You can visit his home today in the southeastern part of the city. It is run by the National Park Service. He continued to speak around the north and gave the main speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, at which event Mary Todd Lincoln gave Douglass her husband’s walking stick.
In 1882, Anna died. Two years later, Douglass scandalized most of his supporters, black and white, by marrying a white woman, Helen Pitts. the daughter of an old abolitionist friend. Her family stopped speaking to her and his children were outraged, calling it a repudiation of his mother. But love is love. Douglass responded to all this by saying that his first marriage had been to someone of his mother’s race, his second was to his father’s race.
Douglass did need work in his later years. None of this made him very wealthy, not even the speaking tours. As early as the Hayes administration, Republican interest in black rights didn’t extend much father than patronage; after Harrison it effectively disappeared altogether. But Douglass was a big name and it looked good to black northern voters to give him a plum post, so Hayes named him the U.S. Marshal for Washington, D.C., giving him a stable income. He started working with a new generation of activists, including Ida Wells. Harrison named Douglass as minister resident to Haiti in 1889, which was an important post, but Douglass was pretty old. He returned to the U.S. in 1891. Still, he kept working, creating a housing development for black citizens of Baltimore that is today known as Douglass Place and still exists. In 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington. He was given a standing ovation. He returned home that evening, had a heart attack, and died. He was probably 77 years old.
Frederick Douglass is buried, along with both his wives, in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.
In one the most appropriate connections between evil in American history, the current owner of Edward Covey’s plantation, site of Douglass’ attempted slavebreaking and his rejection of it, is Donald Rumsfeld.
If you would like this series to visit other African-American leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Pioneering black doctor Charles Drew is in Suitland, Maryland and Arturo Schomberg, compiler of black cultural productions, is in Brooklyn, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.