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FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was one of the pioneering figures, or as some would contend, the main pioneer in the anti-slavery movement in the US. Eventhough his name features rarely alongside other major US civil rights activists like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, it goes without question that its his anti-slavery efforts in the 1800s that paved the way for the civil rights movement in America as we know it today. What makes Douglass' case special is that he actually lived as a slave and against incredible odds, learnt how to read and write. With the power of his knowledge, he eventually freed himself from the bonds of slavery and went on to lead a vey distinguished life, serving at a very high capacity in the US government.

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1818 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, USA. His mother was a slave by the name Harriet Bailey but he had no idea who exactly his father was. From his very light complexion and accounts of those more familiar with his parentage, he later etablished that his father was a white man. He also discovered that he didnt share the same father with his 5 siblings Perry, Sarah, Eliza, Kitty and Arianna who were way darker in complexion than him. The young Douglass was raised by his Grandparents and rarely saw his mother, who was often busy working in the plantations. It was the norm during slavery for children to be raised by their Grandparents while their parents were toiling in the fields. The older slaves were given lighter duties, usually household chores and were charged with the responsibility of looking after children of other slaves until they were old enough to work in the fields.

In 1824, as a six year old boy, Frederick Bailey was sent to work as a slave to work as a slave for Master Aaron Anthony, an Army Captain. Captain Anthony lived with his 2 sons and a daughter Lucretia Auld, Thomas Auld's wife. It was while working for Captain Anthony that the horrors of slavery first dawned on the young Bailey. In particular, his separation from his family, especially his mother began to take its toll on him. This was later confounded by his mother's death, 2 year after he moved into Captain Anthony's household. Typical of the evils of slavery, the young Bailey was not even informed of his mother's illness and eventual death, nor was he allowed to attend her funeral. He only learnt of his mother's death much later when he could do nothing about it. It was here that he began to harbour a deep resentment towards the institution of slavery. All in all, the young Bailey had a terrible experience at Captain Anthony's household where he often went hungry and cold.

This however changed in 1826 when Bailey was sent to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. Hugh was Thomas Auld's brother. Hugh's wife Sophia, according to Bailey's own account was a very nice woman. She came from a poor family and had no history of slave ownership. As a result, she took care the young Bailey under her wings and treated him as her own son. In the Auld household, Bailey was responsible for taking care of Tommy, the Auld's child. Since there were no other slaves in this household, Bailey became more or less part of the family. Sophia liked Bailey so much that she even taught him how to read and write. This however got her in trouble with her husband who felt that educating a slave would only spoil him as it would make him less obedient to his master. As Sophia succumbed to her husband's pressure, the young Bailey turned to his white childhood friends to further his reading and writing skills. Unlike at Captain Anthony's household where he often went hungry, at the Auld household there was an abundance of food. He thus took some of the food to his white friends, and traded it for reading and writing lessons. By 1830, the young Bailey was already reading newspaper articles. It was around this time that he ran into a John Quincy Adams article that talked about the abolition of slavery. Up until that time Bailey had never entertained the notion that he might someday live as a free man. This article revolutionized his thinking and immediately set him on a mission to secure his freedom from slavery.

Bailey's ambitions for freedom were dealt a serious blow in 1833 when he was sent back to Thomas Auld in Tuckahoe, Maryland. Bailey had struggled to leave behind his bad experience at the hands of Thomas and Lucretia Auld. This time it was even worse because Thomas had married another woman, Rowena following the death of his wife Lucretia. Rowena was reportedly a very cruel woman, and it didnt take her long to extend her cruelty to Bailey. In addition to this change in atmosphere, Bailey was in many ways a changed man, advancing towards adulthood and looking more and more towards freedom. It thus became quite hard for Bailey to deal with Thomas and Rowena Auld. Unable to deal with Bailey, Thomas loaned him out to Edward Covey so as to "straighten him out". It was at Covey's that Bailey experienced the worst form of mistreatment as a slave, including savage beatings. It was also here that he became a man because for the first time, he mastered up courage and struck back at Covey in defiance.

In 1838 after a short stay at the Covey household, Bailey was sent to William Freeland, who according to him was one of his best masters. It was at the Freeland household that Bailey devised a plan to escape from slavery. Before he could execute his plans, he together with 4 other slaves were captured and jailed while awaiting their fate. The consequences of attempting to escape from slavery were severe and included execution. Rowena Auld pressured Thomas to sell Bailey to the Southern slave masters in Georgia and Louisiana to teach Bailey a lesson. Southern slave masters had a reputation for being very cruel. To Bailey's surprise, Thomas Auld actually liked him very much and told him secretly in his jail cell that he will send him back to his brother Hugh, where if he maintained "good behaviour", he would be a free man by his 25th birthday.

When he went back to Hugh and Sophia Auld's household in 1838, Bailey was already a grown man and things were very different. His relationship with Sophia in particular suffered a lot because she no longer looked at him as her little boy, but just another adult slave. Hugh Auld arranged for Bailey to work at a shipyard. At first Hugh kept all his earnings, but later after Bailey's request, he let him keep some of his earnings and take care of himself. It was also in 1838 that Bailey met Anna Murray, a free black woman, who he would later marry. From his meagre savings, Bailey bought the papers of a free seaman and used them to escape to freedom in New York. In New York as a free man, he married Anna Murray. The couple then moved to Massachussetts, where Bailey changed his last name to Douglass for fear of capture by his slave master.

Frederick Douglass became an anti-slavery advocate proper in 1841 when he delivered his first abolitionist speech at an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, Massachussetts. After his powerful presentation, Douglass was courted by other anti-slavery advocates to be a speaker for the anti-slavery cause. The eloquence he exhibited during his speeches soon became the subject of controversy. His audiences began questioning how a former slave, who never got any formal education could have such a refined English language. They started accusing Douglass of being a phony. It was against this backdrop that in 1845, Douglass published his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to try and put suspicions about his slavery past to rest. The book however put him and his family in serious danger because it blew his cover as an escaped slave and made it easier for his slave master(Thomas Auld) to capture him. After publishing his book, he took his abolitionist message to Europe while his friends in America tried to buy his freedom from Thomas Auld. His friends finally bought his freedom from Thomas Auld in December 1846 and in April 1847, Douglass returned to the US. In 1847 he also started his anti-slavery newspaper, The NorthStar which he followed in 1855 with his first autobiographical book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

During the American Civil War, which was a war over slavery, Frederick Douglass became a major player and was courted by none other than US President Abraham Lincoln to help enlist black soldiers into the Northern Army(abolitionists). The US Civil War officially ended in April 1865 with a victory for the abolitionists and in the same year slavery was abolished. In 1870, Douglass became the editor of New National Era, a newspaper advocating black rights. In 1874, he went on to became President of Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, a financial institution that encouraged savings and home ownership by blacks. During the 1876 US Presidential elections, Douglass campaigned for Rutherford Hayes who on being elected President, appointed him US Marshall for the District of Columbia. Marshal Douglass however did not forget how far he came and even visited his former slave master Thomas Auld after learning of his sickness. The two had a lot to talk about their shared past, and Douglass reportedly insisted that Thomas address him as "Marshal Douglass".

Douglass went on to publish his 3rd book in 1881, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and in the same year got a new job as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. In 1889 under President Benjamin Harrison, Douglass was appointed US Consul General to Haiti, at that time the only black-ruled country in the American continent. After his job in Haiti, he returned to the US where he died on February 20th 1895.

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