Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

Freedom Center Voices
February 14, 2021

Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born enslaved in or around 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. As is the case with many enslaved people, Douglass was unsure of his exact date of birth. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Douglass writes:

“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”

It was after Douglass escaped enslavement in 1838 that he chose his own birth date—February 14th. Later in the 20th century, historian and “Father of Black History” Carter G. Woodson timed his annual “Negro History Week” (the predecessor of Black History Month) to the second week of February to honor the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

So, in honor of Black History Month, let’s examine one of America’s most famous—and my personal favorite— abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

Early Life

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (the name of his mother), Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant. He lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey until he was “hired out” to work in the home of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. It was while in Baltimore that Douglass was able to teach himself how to read and write based off of lessons he observed from some of the poor, white children in the area. He then began to teach other enslaved people how to read, teaching lessons every Sunday.

Douglass circa 1847-52, around his early 30s. Image source: Samuel J. Miller; American, 1822-1888 - Art Institute of Chicago

At one point, Douglass recounted teaching up to 40 enslaved people from neighboring plantations how to read. When his owner, Thomas Auld, learned what Douglass was doing, he was sold to Edward Covey, a slave owner and farmer with a reputation for brutal treatment of enslaved peoples. Douglass was roughly 16 at the time and later wrote that he was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.”

Escape From Slavery

Douglass attempted to escape slavery twice before finally succeeding in 1838. After his second attempt, he was arrested and sent to Baltimore by his master to work in the city’s shipyards. Douglass became determined to reach New York and ultimately, freedom. He later wrote, “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.”

Yet his case wasn’t hopeless. With the knowledge he gained from working on the shipyard for two years, Douglass was able to disguise himself as a free Black sailor. Armed with a uniform and a sailor’s protection pass that could substitute for “free papers,” Douglass jumped aboard a moving train headed north from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad station. Despite the many obstacles he faced, Douglass arrived safely in New York nearly 24 hours after leaving Baltimore. Abolitionist and anti-slavery activist David Ruggles sheltered Douglass until Anna Murray, Douglass’ soon-to-be wife, met him in Baltimore. Murray was a free Black housekeeper Douglas met while enslaved by the Aulds. It wasn’t long before the couple married and would go on to have five children over the span of their marriage.

Anna Murray Douglass, 1860. Image source: Rosetta Douglass Sprague, "My Mother As I Recall Her," 1900.

The Birth of Activism: Abolitionist Years

Soon after Douglass and Murray were married, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The couple met Nathan and Mary Johnson there, a freed married couple. The Johnsons inspired the couple to adopt the new surname of Douglass after a character from the Sir Walter Scott poem, The Lady of the Lake.

Douglass became active in the abolitionist movement during their time in New Bedford. He attended anti-slavery meetings that connected him to a variety of notable abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison. Upon hearing Douglass’ story of enslavement, Garrison encouraged him to share his story with others in the community.

Douglass did so and by 1843 he was one of the many abolitionists involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Along the stops of the tour, Douglass was repeatedly attacked by pro-slavery supporters. One incident in Pendleton, Indiana left Douglass with a broken hand; the injury never fully healed and impacted the function of his hand for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, a determined Douglass continued to travel and share his experiences with others. In 1845, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Great Britain to speak about American slavery. He also published the first and most famous of his three autobiography’s that year—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Within four months of its release, nearly 5,000 copies were sold and six new editions were published between 1845 and 1849. Douglass would go on to write two other autobiographies—My Bondage and My Freedom (1881) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892).

When he returned to the United States from England in 1847, Douglass began publishing an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star. Sold by a subscription fee of $2, The North Star acquired more than 4,000 readers in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean before merging with the Liberty Party Paper in 1851.

Activism for All: Douglass’s Role in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

In addition to Douglass’ work as an anti-slavery advocate, he was also a staunch supporter of the women’s movement. At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, he was one of only a handful of men in attendance and the only African American present. In fact, it was Douglass who persuaded the convention to support Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolution asking for women’s suffrage.

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”

— Frederick Douglass, Seneca Falls Convention, 1848


Douglass continued to support the cause of women’s suffrage throughout his life, even after many suffragists abandoned the idea of universal suffrage with the passage of the 15th Amendment.

The Great Agitator and the Civil War

During the American Civil War, Douglass found his pivotal role in agitation and activism. He continued to pressure politicians for the full emancipation of enslaved individuals. In fact, Douglass’ constant agitation of President Abraham Lincoln helped usher in the terms of the emancipation to come. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the document which ensured freedom to those enslaved living in the South. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation had no legal standing, as the states in secession no longer recognized the authority of the United States. However, the document did what Douglass had been encouraging Lincoln to do since the eve of his election—send a message that the Civil War will not be won until all are free.

Douglass believed that African Americans, both formerly enslaved and legally freed, had a moral obligation to join the Union Army and fight for the cause against slavery. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of allowing African American troops to serve in the Union Army. Douglass served himself as a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment—the second African American regiment in the Civil War.

Douglass spent the remainder of the war traveling around the North, encouraging African Americans to enlist with the Union Army. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In total, African Americans made up 10% of the Union Army, with numbers totaling close to 200,000.

Later Life and Legacy

During Reconstruction, Douglass served in many positions within the U.S. government including a stint as president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank. In 1889, President Harrison appointed him to the posts of “Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti” and “Chargé d'Affaires for the Dominican Republic.” This made Douglass the first Black man to hold “high office” in the United States.

In 1882, his wife of 44 years, Anna, died after battling a long-time illness. Two years later, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and abolitionist twenty years his junior who served as his secretary. The controversial couple were married for 11 years until his death, traveling extensively around Europe in 1886 and 1887.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center). Image Source: National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack on the evening of February 20, 1895 after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Throughout his life, Douglass remained a vigilant activist, agitator and supporter of human rights. In the 1907 biography on Frederick Douglass, scholar and African American historian Booker T. Washington says of Douglass:

“While it is true that Frederick Douglass would have been a notable character in any period, it is also true that in the life of hardly any other man was there comprehended so great a variety of incidents of what is perhaps the most memorable epoch in our history.”

Katie Bramell, Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.
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