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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Who is Frederick Douglass?

Born into an enslaved life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass grew up in his grandmother's small cabin. Raised by her, Douglass never knew who his father was and he only saw his mother a few times in his life. While he was still a small boy, his grandmother brought him, under orders, to the master's home at Wye Plantation. This event began Douglass's journey through slavery.

Like other enslaved children, Douglass wore rough clothes and ate slop (leftovers from the kitchen). Unlike other enslaved children, however, he was not restricted to running errands or helping in the fields. Instead, he became the playmate of the plantation owner's son. Despite his access to the plantation house, Douglass was not an equal. He fished and played games the way his white "friend" told him.

He was very intelligent, but never went to school. When he lived in Baltimore working as a house servant, the wife of his temporary master started to teach him to read. When her husband found out, he angrily stopped her. After this, Douglass realized education was a key to success and freedom and he became self-taught.

Sent back to the Eastern Shore, Frederick Douglass yearned for the freedom he saw white men had. He did not want to work in the fields for the rest of his life. As a teenager, Douglass attempted his first escape by canoe from a plantation that had hired Douglass from his owner. He failed and luckily avoided a harsh punishment, but he continued to dream of freedom. Douglass finally escaped in 1838 by boarding a train in Havre de Grace, Maryland, dressed in sailor's clothes and using the pass of a free black man. The following is an excerpt from Douglass's recollection of his escape:

...But I had one friend-a sailor-who owned a sailor's protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers-describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which at once gave it the appearance of an authorized document. This protection did not, when in my hands, describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start.

…In my clothing I was rigged out in sailor style. I had on a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion…My knowledge of ships and sailor's talk came much to my assistance...1

Terrified that he would be discovered, Douglass described a close call on the train:

I saw on the train several persons who would have known me in any other clothes, and I feared they might recognize me, even in my sailor "rig," and report me to the conductor, who would then subject me to a closer examination, which I knew well would be fatal to me.2

He was not caught. Arriving first in New York City, Douglass continued on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There he adopted a new name, married his sweetheart (whom he had met in Baltimore), and began a new life. Thanks to the African American married couple who gave Douglass shelter in New Bedford, he realized the privileges and disadvantages (prejudice, threat of recapture) of the life of free blacks in the North. After impressing an audience in Nantucket with his speaking skills, Douglass became a traveling lecturer familiarizing audiences with the realities of slavery. He presented himself so well that he had to publish his autobiography with details of his identity to make his time in slavery believable. After the publication in 1845 of the first of Frederick Douglass's three autobiographies, friends encouraged him to take a trip abroad, in part from fear that the publicity might attract the attention of his former owner. While in Great Britain, Douglass became legally free when he inspired supporters to purchase his freedom. Once back in the United States, Douglass continued to speak out against slavery and began publication of his newspaper, The North Star. Well-known to both free and enslaved people, Douglass remembered his own flight from slavery and aided freedom seekers wherever he lived.

Douglass viewed the Civil War as a war for freedom. When war came, Douglass was the leading African American to advise Abraham Lincoln on the need to end slavery and to urge the use of African American troops. Once Lincoln gave permission for their inclusion, Douglass became a recruiter, beginning with his sons. After the Civil War, Douglass was appointed as the first African American in several government positions -- United States marshal (1887) and recorder of deeds (1881) in Washington, DC. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglas as the U.S. minister to Haiti. Throughout Douglass's remarkable life, he passionately spoke out against slavery and other social injustices. He died a respected statesman, orator, journalist, and author.

Questions for Reading 1

1) What was Frederick Douglass's life like in slavery? What made his experience different from many others who were enslaved?

2) How did Douglass try to escape the first time? How and when did he successfully escape from Maryland?

3) What did he do once he escaped from slavery? If you had been in his position, do you think you would been so outspoken and risked recognition? Remember, you have a family that will likely suffer if you are caught and you are likely to be punished for escaping. Can you think of a reason why Douglass might not have wanted to publish the details of his escape until after the Civil War?

4) Name a few of Douglass's accomplishments throughout his life. What do you think is the most meaningful?

Reading 1 was compiled from Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: DeWolfe & Fiske Co., 1892); William McFeely, Frederick Douglass (W.W. Norton & Company; Reprint, 1995); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: The Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

1 Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: DEWOLFE & FISKE CO., 1892), 246-249.
2 Ibid.

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