Frederick Douglass: a snapshot biography.

Upbringing & Early Years

Like most enslaved people, Frederick Douglass didn’t know his birthday. He just knew that his birth happened sometime around 1817 in Talbot County, Maryland. He also didn’t know who his father was. Though based on rumors, it was the plantation master. And as for his mother. She didn’t live with Frederick. She was moved during his infancy and enslaved on a plantation about a dozen miles away. His memories of her were sparse. Just a handful of times they met, when she’d walk at night to be with her son for a few hours before heading back. She had to be at work in the morning. Those visits ended when she passed away around the time Frederick was seven years old. Such went the beginning of the young boy’s life. On a plantation, father unknown, mother miles away at first, and then orphaned.

More trauma was part of his upbringing. As a child, he watched his aunt whipped by an overseer. He wrote of that experience and many others of the same to come,

“I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”

Around age eight marked a significant change in Frederick’s life. Selected to live with a relative of the plantation master in Baltimore, the young boy saw a glimpse into a different life. In his new home, Frederick described the mistress as “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings.” The mistress began teaching Frederick the alphabet and how to read. But her husband, upon learning of the lessons, forbade them to continue. For Frederick, however, a new world had already opened. He was inspired to learn and understood the importance of learning.

From his time in Baltimore came two significant changes in Frederick’s life. The first was his commitment to learning to read and write. That he did by exchanging food with some of the neighboring poor white children for lessons. The other was new thoughts of life as a free man. “I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart,” he wrote. The latter he could not act on at the time.

This chapter of Baltimore life ended with Frederick being sent back to a rural plantation. While enslaved life was always unjust and cruel, life for those enslaved in the countryside tended to be worse than for those in cities. Frederick experienced this change, enduring more cruelty with frequent whippings. “The dark night of slavery closed upon me,” he wrote.

For a time, he lived with a broken spirit, often anxious about the changes of his new experience. “I suffered more anxiety than most of my fellow-slaves. I had known what it was to be kindly treated; they had known nothing of the kind. They had seen little or nothing of the world. They were in very deed men and women of sorrow, and acquainted with grief. Their backs had been made familiar with the bloody lash, so that they had become callous; mine was yet tender; for while at Baltimore I got few whippings, and few slaves could boast of a kinder master and mistress than myself.”

But after standing up to cruel punishment, his resolve for freedom returned.

Oil painting of Frederick Douglass, circa 1845
Frederick Douglass, circa 1845

Freedom and Later Years

September 3rd, 1838 – freedom. Frederick Douglass successfully fled Baltimore for New York that day. Of his feelings upon escaping, he wrote,

“I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren–children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey.”

Engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass, 1855
Frederick Douglass, 1855

Though feelings were as such at first, he also felt much “gladness and joy,” and kindness from others helped Frederick settle into his new life. One man, in particular, bestowed much generosity and guidance. And with his help, Frederick married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the couple settled.

Taking a job and adjusting to a new life, Frederick came across an abolitionist newspaper called the Liberator. He became an avid reader, and with time it led him to what would become his life’s work. After all the pain and suffering Frederick experienced while enslaved, he became a man determined to help bring change. He wanted to see an end to enslavement and equality for all, dedicating himself to public speaking, writing, and meeting with leaders.

Frederick Douglass portrait, taken in 1876
Frederick Douglass, 1876

Frederick passed away in Washington, D.C., on February 20th, 1895.

Note:

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Click here to read our snapshot biography of Harriet Tubman, who also escaped enslavement and went on to help others

Sources:

Story – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself: Frederick Douglass. Published by the Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, 1845 – Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina

Photographs – Top portrait: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.74.45 / Second portrait: Frontispiece: Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I- Life as a Slave, Part II- Life as a Freeman, with an introduction by James M’Cune Smith. New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan (1855) – Wikimedia Commons / Third portrait: National Portrait Gallery, NPG.80.282

To cite:

“Frederick Douglass: a snapshot biography.” Historical Snapshots.