On February 1, 2017 President Donald Trump spoke to the press about the importance of Black History Month. In describing Frederick Douglass, Trump said, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.” During a press conference later that day, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer what Trump meant by his statement, Spicer replied, “I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.” These two statements make it abundantly clear that neither Trump nor Spicer have any idea who Frederick Douglass was and why we, as Americans, should remember him. Neither of them did as much as a Google search about Douglass and his remarkable life.
So in order to remedy that situation, here’s an incredibly short list of Frederick Douglass’s accomplishments.
- Douglass was born a slave sometime in February 1818 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Like many slaves, he never learned his actual birthdate because his master never told him when it was.
- At the age of 12, Douglass’s mistress Sophia Auld taught him the alphabet. Building off her teaching, Douglass taught himself to read and write. Auld later regretted teaching the young slave and opposed his efforts to educate himself further. Southern states generally forbade the teaching of slaves to read as they were fearful of an educated slave population.
- At 16, engaged in a physical confrontation with Edward Covey, a notorious slave breaker. Douglass’s master had hired him out to Covey to break the young slave’s will. Douglass described the fight as the “turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”
- In 1838, Douglass, wearing a sailor’s uniform and carrying the free papers borrowed from a free black sailor, boarded a train in Baltimore heading north. Within 24 hours, he had escaped to New York City and freedom in the North.
- In 1841, after delivering a speech at an anti-slavery convention on Nantucket, Douglass became an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. This began his career as an anti-slavery lecturer where he toured around the North and Midwest and frequently faced violence from white Northerners.
- In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Within five years, the book had sold 30,000 copies and had gone through 3 European editions. Douglass would publish two additional autobiographies, My Bondage, My Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881 (revised in 1892).
- In 1847, after touring Great Britain, Douglass settled in Rochester, NY and launched his own newspaper, The North Star.
- In 1848, he was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention where he supported women’s suffrage.
- During the Civil War, Douglass recruited over one hundred African Americans to serve in the 54th Massachusetts regiment—memorialized in the movie Glory—including his own sons Lewis and Charles.
- Had meetings with Presidents Abraham Lincoln—to discuss the Civil War—and President Andrew Johnson—regarding Reconstruction—before African American men had the right to vote.
- Later in life, President Rutherford Hays appointed Douglass the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia and President Benjamin Harrison named him minister to Haiti.
This is a relatively short list of the deeds that marked Frederick Douglass’s remarkable life. He stood in opposition to the institution of slavery and in support of equal rights for African Americans and women. Below is a short list of resources for further information about the life of this remarkable American.
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself. Available for free online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html
Frederick Douglass, My Bondage, My Freedom. Available for free online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass55/douglass55.html
Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Available for free online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/dougl92/menu.html
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Speech delivered July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY. Available for free online: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/
Levine, Robert S. The Lives of Frederick Douglass. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).
Martin, Jr. Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).
McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Stauffer, John. Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).