There are some questions that almost every kid can answer right away. Of course, you know your name, and who your family members are. You and your friends probably all know how old you are and when your birthday is without even thinking. After all, who could forget a day when you get to celebrate with friends, cake, and presents?
But if someone had asked a young Frederick Douglass these questions, he wouldn’t have been able to answer some of them. Frederick was born into slavery in the early 19th century, in the state of Maryland. Not only was he considered the property of his white master, but many other things were also denied to him and his fellow enslaved workers. Frederick never knew his birthday, or exactly how old he was. He never knew his father, though there were rumors that his master was his father. He barely knew his mother: she was forced to work on a farm miles away from Frederick. She wanted so badly to see her son that, whenever she could, she would walk for miles after a long day of fieldwork to visit him late at night. Sadly, these visits stopped when Frederick was seven. He would only learn later that his mother had died.
This was how life looked for millions of enslaved people at the time. Birthdays and close family members are important parts of who we are, but slave masters didn’t want their slaves to have these connections. They didn’t want them to learn to read or write. Family, birthdays, and books might give the enslaved worker things to care about and hope for that had nothing to do with working for their master from dawn til dusk, and work was what the master wanted.
Not long after his mother passed away, Frederick’s grandmother took him to a different plantation. Once there, the master made her leave. Frederick stayed. At 8 years old, he would get a taste of what life as an enslaved worker was like. He was given two long shirts to wear, but no pants, shoes, or even a blanket. He slept on the floor, sometimes stealing a flour sack to keep warm under. He saw the grown-ups go off to the fields to work before dawn, and not return until it was dark, so tired they were ready to collapse. He saw his aunt whipped for talking to a man she liked.
But soon, Frederick’s enslaver decided he’d be of better use elsewhere. He sent Frederick to live with his relatives in Baltimore, Hugh, and Sophia Auld. There, he would live in a house and be given better clothes to wear. But this wasn’t exactly a privilege: Frederick was going there to be a servant to the Auld’s son.
Still, for a brief time, Frederick got a glimpse of a better life. But the nice house, the big, bustling city, and the real clothes were just a small part of that better life. His new mistress, Sophia Auld, gave him something far more valuable than those things..in fact, more valuable than even she realized. She taught him to read.
Sophia Auld did not come from a family that kept slaves. She didn’t know it was illegal to teach them to read, and maybe she didn’t realize what a powerful thing reading was. But she was delighted to see how quickly Frederick learned, and he loved his lessons.
Hugh Auld was not so pleased. He scolded Sophia that reading would ruin Frederick as a slave. He thought, like many other slaveholders, that if slaves knew how to read they might learn about ideas that made them question slavery. They might start thinking about freedom and democracy. They might rebel or run away.
Sadly, Sophia came around to her husband’s way of thinking. She stopped teaching Frederick. She became distant and cold. Frederick wrote later that “slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.” It made her less kind and less human.
Hugh Weld was right about one thing though. Reading gave Frederick power. Like many enslaved people, Frederick had wished for freedom even before he could read. But in books, he found people who argued that he deserved freedom, who said he was just as human as any white person. He learned about people and ideas that gave him the strength to keep hoping – for his own freedom and that of all enslaved people.
Frederick didn’t want to stop learning. He befriended white children in the streets of Baltimore. He convinced them to help him with his reading and writing. Like Sophia, they didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to. They saw Frederick as just another little boy. Many of these children were hungry and poor, so Frederick would take a little extra bread from the Auld’s kitchen to share with them. By the time he was 12, he convinced many of these children that he should be free when he grew up, just like them. They could see what the grown-ups all around them couldn’t: Frederick was a child just like them, and he deserved the same freedom they had.
Eventually, Frederick was sent to work on Hugh’s brother’s farm. Thomas Auld was far more strict than Hugh, and he and Frederick clashed from the beginning. Frederick would sometimes let Thomas’s horse run off. He knew the horse would always wander to a particular neighbor’s house, and that neighbor would give Frederick a good meal when he went to retrieve the horse. But maybe he secretly wished that escape could be so easy for him. Thomas soon got tired of this behavior. He thought he knew how to teach Frederick to be obedient and meek. He sent him to live with a man named Edward Covey.
Covey was the worst person yet. He wasn’t a new master, who just wanted Frederick to work and obey his orders. Covey’s job was to break slaves who weren’t behaving the way their regular masters wanted. He worked Frederick harder than any other master had, and punished him more cruelly. He whipped and beat him almost daily. But Frederick stayed strong. He never gave in, and finally, one day, he had had enough. He fought back. The two fought with each other for hours, but finally, Covey gave in. From that day on, Frederick knew he could stand up to even the worst treatment. More than that, he knew he could escape.
Frederick was sent back to the Aulds in Baltimore. He had one goal now: to free himself. To go north, where he could make his own decisions and fight for the rights of others to do the same.
In Baltimore, he met a free black woman named Anna. The two fell in love, but Frederick didn’t want anything to get in the way of his goal of freedom. He told Anna he would marry her when he was a free man.
Finally, he found a friend who was willing to help. The friend was a free black sailor in Baltimore, and he let Frederick use his identification papers. Wearing a rumpled sailor uniform that didn’t quite fit, Frederick got on a train to Delaware, then a ship to Philadelphia and freedom. He settled in New York and sent word to Anna to join him.
Freedom for himself wasn’t enough though. Frederick knew that millions of other enslaved people still suffered – children without mothers who didn’t have enough to eat or wear; grownups who worked every moment of the day with no pay and no choices in life. He began to speak against slavery, and in August of 1841, he traveled to a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Someone in the hot, crowded meeting hall had heard him speak before and urged Frederick to address the meeting.
Frederick was nervous because he’d never spoken in front of such a large group. His voice shook. But soon after he began, he saw the sympathetic expressions on the faces in the audience. He told about his struggles to learn to read and about the harsh treatment he’d endured under Edward Covey. How he didn’t know his age or birthday, and never really knew his mother.
After that, Frederick joined the Anti-Slavery Society and began to tour the free states, speaking about his experience. His perspective was valuable since many in the North had not witnessed slavery up close. He wrote his autobiography, revealing the terrible things he and other enslaved people experienced every day.
None of this was safe or easy. Having his name in newspapers and pamphlets, then on a published book, meant that people in the south might realize who he was, and Frederick’s old master might send slave catchers to kidnap and bring him back. After his book came out, Frederick traveled to England. In England, all people were free. Frederick spoke to groups there about American slavery, convincing many British people to speak out against the system. Two English friends raised money to buy Frederick’s freedom. For 710 dollars and 96 cents, the Aulds officially gave Frederick the freedom he’d known all along was his right.
Frederick returned to America as a free man in 1847. By this time, many Americans were starting to think that they would never be able to resolve their differences about slavery peacefully. Civil War broke out in 1861 between the Northern, free states, and slaveholding states in the South. Frederick knew this conflict would determine the fate of the millions of people still enslaved in America.
Frederick was one of the most famous men in America by now. He met with President Lincoln in the White House and helped convince him to allow black men to fight in the Union army. He then recruited black men to fight, including two of his sons. He attended Lincoln’s second inauguration, and when he was turned away at the door for a reception afterward, Lincoln insisted the guards let him in. Lincoln asked Frederick his opinion of his speech, saying there was “no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Frederick told the president that it “was a sacred effort.”
Frederick lived three more decades after the civil war. He kept working to help black people get to vote, get their education, and enjoy the rights that had been denied them for so long.
Frederick was born enslaved–denied a mother, a birthday, and his freedom. He was taught to read almost by accident, and that one forbidden activity opened a world of ideas–of freedom, justice, and opportunity to him. He discovered that words were powerful. With his speeches and writing, Frederick opened the minds and hearts of masses of people, even a president, to the experiences of enslaved people. He made them see these people as people, made them care, and made them act. Frederick’s voice may have shaken at first, but it grew strong and clear and deep. And it could never be broken.
Douglass, Frederick. (1845) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Anti-Slavery Office, Boston.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. (2012) Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Disney, New York.