Slavery in America for Kids and Teachers - Who was Frederick Douglass? Illustration

Slavery in America for Kids - Who was Frederick Douglass?

Frederick Douglass was born in 1817 in the state of Maryland. He had a white father and a slave mother. His father named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. When Frederick was seven years old, his white father put him to work as a slave on his farm. When he turned 10 years old, his father rented him to relatives in Baltimore, who put Frederick to work as a slave in their home. He was also supposed to be a companion to his Baltimore master's son. His master's wife came from a family that did not have slaves. She taught both boys, her son and Frederick, how to read. She stopped when she learned it was illegal to teach a slave how to read. But Frederick had become interested in learning. With the help of the son of the family, Frederick learned to read and write.

By reading cast off newspapers, he learned about the Abolitionist Movement to end slavery. He joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Association, whose members were mostly freed slaves. He met his future wife there. When he turned 21, Anna encouraged him to escape. He escaped easily. He dressed as a sailor, carried fake papers, and traveled by train and boat to New York. He changed his name to Frederick Douglass so the slave catchers would not know who he was. Anna traveled to New York. They married and moved to Massachusetts.

At the age of 23, Frederick Douglass attended an abolitionist convention. Someone there asked him to give an impromptu speech about his life as a slave. He did so brilliantly. His appearance and bearing was that of a highly intelligent man. He spoke clearly, with dignity and power. Everything about him denied and made ridiculous the proslavery position that somehow African Americans were subservient to whites and were happiest when serving their white masters. As a result, Frederick Douglass was offered a full-time job as a lecturer for the Anti-Slavery Society. 

A few years later, in 1845, Frederick Douglass published a book, his autobiography. He wrote about his life as a slave and named his master in Baltimore. To avoid being captured by slave catchers, Douglass went on a two year speaking tour in Great Britain. Many people in Britain were impressed by Douglass. They raised the money he needed to buy his freedom from slavery. In 1847, he returned to America as a free man.

When he got home, leading abolitionists were angry that he had purchased his freedom. To them, no purchase was necessary. Slavery was wrong. You should not have to buy your way out of something that should be illegal. Frederick Douglass disagreed. That was the law at the time, and now he did not have to hide who he was. He could live without fear of the slave catchers.

He moved his family to Rochester, New York. He started his own newspaper, The North Star. He became a loud voice in the antislavery movement. He spoke out for women's rights. His sons fought in the Union army during the Civil War. After the war, he held several government positions including ambassador to Haiti. Until the day he died, he fought for the rights of others. He died at age 78, returning from a meeting about women's suffrage.

He was married twice. Douglass is quoted as saying, "My first wife was the color of my mother. My second wife was the color of my father."

Frederick Douglass (biography)

The Abolitionist Movement

Slavery in America

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