Feb 13, 2017

Black History Month: Frederick Douglass

While 77-year-old Frederick Douglass passed away nearly 122 years ago (on February 20, 1895 to be exact), his illustrious name has recently been, well, trending.*  

Frederick Douglass around 1850  
(National Park Service, public domain)
Author and former slave Frederick Augustus Washington Douglass (nĂ© Bailey) is best known for his work as an abolitionist and social reformer, but he’s also a stand out for his ability to read and write, unusual in an era which criminalized African-American literacy.  To put Frederick’s ability to read and write in some perspective, 25 years before his death, only 20% of “black and other [non-white] races” were literate. (U.S. Department of Education. “120 Years of Education : a Statistical Portrait.” 1993. Table 6).   

Bailey was taught the alphabet and basic reading at age 9 by the sympathetic wife of ship carpenter and slave owner Hugh Auld-- until the lessons were discovered and halted by Hugh, who believed [realized?] education could make slaves discontented and rebellious, [and was therefore a threat to the extremely profitable institution of slavery].  Over the years Frederick surreptitiously continued his education on his own, and began teaching other slaves how to read and write.  Frederick paid a high price for disobeying—he was rented out as a field hand to a man known for his brutal treatment of slaves, and was repeatedly and severely whipped.  

Fast forward to 1838.  Frederick had tried unsuccessfully to escape slavery twice before, but this time with luck—and the aid of his wife-to-be, free black woman Anna Murray, plus a seaman’s uniform, identification papers purchased from a retired black seaman, and the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York, Frederick was successful in escaping slavery, changing his surname to Johnson, then later to Douglass.  Douglass began sharing his story at Abolitionist meetings, and with the encouragement of Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass wrote the first of three autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  

Douglass addressing Anti-Slavery Society, Nantuckett, 1841. 
Wife Anna (bottom left corner). Abolitionist Garrison (bottom right corner). 
 (Quilt by Ben Irving & Negro History Club, Marin City & Sausilito, 1953. Robert Woodruff Library Collection)

If this this extremely brief bio has whetted your appetite for more, we have several books by and about Frederick Douglass, including his autobiographies.  

*Trending.  "a mutilation of the English language that means 'currently popular.' It derives from a sad misunderstanding of the verb 'to trend' as meaning 'to become a trend.' Twitter's 'Trending Topics' list has probably contributed to this degeneration." (Urban Dictionary website).

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