The Evolved Man of the WeeK: Frederick Douglass

Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s Evolved Man of the Week profiles. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure who embodies what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass.

Douglass was born enslaved as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on Holme Hill Farm in Talbot county, Maryland. Although his birth date was not recorded, Douglass estimated that he had been born in February 1818, and he later celebrated his birthday on February 14. Douglass was owned by Capt. Aaron Anthony was the clerk and superintendent of overseers for Edward Lloyd V (also known as Colonel Lloyd), a wealthy landowner and slaveholder in eastern Maryland. Like many other enslaved children, Douglass was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was very young. He spent his formative years with his maternal grandmother, Betsey Bailey, who was responsible for raising young enslaved children.

After several failed attempts at escape, Douglass finally left Covey’s farm in 1838, first boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. From there, he traveled through Delaware, another slave state, before arriving in New York and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles.

Douglass crossed the wide Susquehanna River by the railroad’s steam ferry at Havre de Grace to Perryville on the opposite shore, in Cecil County, then continued by train across the state line to Wilmington, Delaware, a large port at the head of the Delaware Bay. Because the rail line was not yet completed, he went by steamboat along the Delaware River further northeast to the “Quaker City” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold. He continued to the safe house of noted abolitionist David Ruggles in New York City. His entire journey to freedom took less than 24 hours.

Once settled in New York, he sent for Anna Murray, a free Black woman from Baltimore he met while in captivity with the Aulds. She joined him, and the two were married in September 1838. They had five children together. After their marriage, the young couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where they met Nathan and Mary Johnson, a married couple who were born “free persons of color.” The Johnsons inspired the couple to take the surname Douglass, after the character in the Sir Walter Scott poem, “The Lady of the Lake.”

In New Bedford, Douglass began attending meetings of the abolitionist movement. During these meetings, he was exposed to the writings of abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison. The two men eventually met when both were asked to speak at an abolitionist meeting, during which Douglass shared his story of slavery and escape. Garrison encouraged Douglass to become a speaker and leader in the abolitionist movement.

By 1843, Douglass had become part of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Douglass was physically assaulted several times by those opposed to the abolitionist movement. Douglass’ hand was broken in one ferocious attack in Pendleton, Indiana. The injuries never fully healed, and he never regained full use of his hand.

In 1858, radical abolitionist John Brown stayed with Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, as he planned his raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, part of his attempt to establish a stronghold of formerly enslaved people in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia. Brown was caught and hanged for masterminding the attack, offering the following prophetic words as his final statement: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass strongly advocated for the inclusion of Black soldiers in the Union army. He became a recruiter for the Massachusetts 54th, an all-Black infantry regiment in which his sons Lewis and Charles served. In 1863 Douglass visited the White House to meet with Pres. Abraham Lincoln advocated for better pay and conditions for the soldiers. Lincoln then invited Douglass to the White House in 1864 to discuss what could be done for Blacks in the case of a Union loss. Douglass would meet with Lincoln a third time after the president’s second inauguration and about a month before his assassination.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s victory presented a new reality: millions of Black people were free. Douglass dedicated himself to securing the community’s rights to this new freedom. He strongly supported the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted Blacks citizenship, but he realized that this new citizenship status needed to be protected by suffrage. Initially, Douglass supported a constitutional amendment supporting suffrage for all men and women. Having attended the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, he was a longtime supporter of women’s rights, joining Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in this stance. Reconstruction politics, however, indicated that a universal suffrage amendment would fail. Douglass then supported Black male suffrage with the idea that Black men could help women secure the right to vote later. This placed him at odds with Stanton and Anthony. Douglass hoped that the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment would encourage African Americans to stay in the South to consolidate their power as a voting bloc. Still, the region’s high violence against African Americans led him to support Black migration to safer areas of the country.

After a fire destroyed his Rochester home, Douglass moved in 1872 to Washington, D.C., where he published his latest newspaper venture, New National Era. The newspaper folded in 1874 because of its poor fiscal health. That same year Douglass was appointed president of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust, also known as the Freedman’s Bank. The bank failed four months after he became president because of the years of corruption that predated his association with the bank. The bank’s failure harmed his reputation, but Douglass worked with the U.S. Congress to remedy the damage caused by the bank.

At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party’s roll call vote. [153] That year, Douglass spoke at Claflin College, a historically black college in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and the state’s oldest such institution.

Many African Americans, called Exodusters, escaped the Klan and racially discriminatory laws in the South by moving to Kansas, where some formed all-black towns to have greater freedom and autonomy. Douglass favored neither this nor the Back-to-Africa movement. He thought the latter resembled the American Colonization Society, which he had opposed in his youth. In 1892, at an Indianapolis conference convened by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Douglass spoke out against the separatist movements, urging blacks to stick it out. He made similar speeches as early as 1879. He was criticized by fellow leaders and some audiences, who even booed him for this position. In Baltimore in 1894, Douglass said, “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

President Harrison appointed Douglass as the United States’s minister, resident, and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti and Chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo in 1889. [ but Douglass resigned the commission in July 1891 when it became apparent that the American President was intent upon gaining permanent access to Haitian territory regardless of that country’s desires. In 1892, Haiti made Douglass a co-commissioner of its pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In 1892, Douglass constructed rental housing for blacks, now known as Douglass Place, in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. The complex still exists and, in 2003, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On February 20, 1895, Douglass attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, he was brought to the platform and received a standing ovation. Shortly after he returned home, Douglass died of a massive heart attack. He was 77.

His funeral was held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. Although Douglass had attended several churches in the nation’s capital, he had a pew here and had donated two standing candelabras when this church had moved to a new building in 1886. He also gave many lectures there, including his last major speech, “The Lesson of the Hour.”

Thousands of people passed by his coffin to show their respect. United States Senators and Supreme Court judges were pallbearers. Jeremiah Rankin, President of Howard University, delivered “a masterly address.” A letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton was read. The Secretary of the Haitian Legation “expressed the condolence of his country in melodious French.”

Here is Frederick Douglass in his own words in an open letter to his former slave master and speaking of the horrors of U.S. Slavery: 

Oh! Sir, a slaveholder never appears to me so ultimately an agent of hell, as when I think of and look upon my dear children. Then, my feelings rise above my control. … The grim horrors of slavery wake in all their ghastly terror before me, and the wails of millions pierce my heart and chill my blood. I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the deathlike gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman, the appalling liability of his being torn away from his wife and children and sold like a beast in the market.

Frederick Douglass was a complex and intriguing individual. He lived many lives born into slavery, and died an American hero. His words, deeds, and courage have inspired countless generations of people in search of freedom, liberty, and equity for all humankind. Today we honor Frederick Douglass as our Evolved Man of the Week. 

American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), who helped recruit African-American regiments during the Civil War, ca. 1879. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

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