The Enduring Legacy of Frederick Douglass
Note: This essay is based on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave Written by Himself. John Blessingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
I have been fascinated with Frederick Douglass for over ten years. What an amazing story he has! Born a slave, he escaped to freedom and became a world-renowned orator, author, minister, and activist. Along the way, he developed convictions that still ring true, especially those regarding free speech, justice, and education.
Douglass was truly a self-educated man, stating: “Read and you will forever be free.” Learning to read was the catalyst for Douglass, the orator and statesman. His master’s wife provided him with the basics and when Douglass surpassed her expertise, he sought out books to keep him on the path to literacy.
One book in particular made a lasting impression on the young Douglass, and that book was The Colombian Orator. At age twelve, Douglass devoured it, memorizing passages, then pacing the floor while he practiced his delivery. Scholars believe that this determination was a factor in Douglass’ transformation into an orator respected across the country and around the world. In his later years, Douglass spent about six months out of the year traveling in the United States and abroad giving lectures. Following are some up-lifting quotations from the speeches of Frederick Douglass:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
“To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave.”
“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
“What is possible for me is possible for you.”
The impact of Frederick Douglass on the history of our country, especially in the area of civil rights, was impressive. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared Douglass’ ideology for equality of all people. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech echoes a speech given by Douglass called "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Both men scolded a nation for espousing equality, while ignoring conditions that forced blacks into poverty.
Fast-forward forty years to the election of President Barack Obama. In remarks at the Democratic Convention in 2008, then Senator Obama, delivered what has become known as his “Yes, We Can” speech. It reflects the optimism and encouragement of Frederick Douglass advice that what was “possible for me is possible for you.”
I developed the framework for this essay while attending the American Memory Institute at the Library of Congress. American Memory is the digital archive for millions of documents, photographs, speeches, letters, film, music, and paintings, related to the history of the United States. Created by an act of Congress in 1990, American Memory was the brainchild of James Billington, the Librarian of Congress at that time. He had a vision to share historic images that previously could only be viewed by appointment at the Library.
Because of the depth of research possible at the library of Congress, my colleague and I (along with twenty-three other teachers from across the Nation) were able to draft a lesson plan outline to aid high school students in the study of Frederick Douglass. Our group’s completed lesson plans were displayed on the American Memory website for viewing by teachers and students everywhere.
What makes Frederick Douglass’ life extraordinary is his transformation from slave to abolitionist to world-class citizen. Even though descriptions of his harsh circumstances may still make us cringe, the eloquence of those descriptions are ingrained in our memories.
The Early Years
To understand the full impact of Douglass’ life, it is important to start at the beginning. While there is no accurate record of his birth, it is believed that he was born in 1818, in Talbot County, Maryland. In his Narrative, Douglass describes his father as “a white man,” “the master of the plantation.” He never knew his name. Frederick never knew for sure who his father was.
The mother of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Bailey, was said to be “both colored and quite dark.” As was the custom then, she was separated from her son, who was “hired out” to another Maryland farm. Douglass gives no reason for this travesty, other than to “blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.” (p. 14). For this was the effect his mother’s disappearance had on the boy. He only saw her five times in his entire life. Harriet would risk her life to visit her son, walking the entire distance after working in the fields all day. Then she would soothe her son to sleep, and leave the next morning. When Frederick was seven, he heard that his mother had died.
In his early years, Frederick experienced great hardship. In his Autobiography, he writes that: “in the hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked – no shoes, no stockings, no stockings, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” (28)
Frederick also witnessed the suffering of others. He wrote in painful detail about the flogging of his “Aunt Hester,” whose only mistake had been her absence on a night when her master desired her. Recalling the tragedy, Frederick wrote that his aunt was “taken into the kitchen and stripped from neck to waist…her hands were crossed and tied with a strong rope, and she was led to a stool under a large hook in the joist…He made her get on the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes…after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowhide, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart rending shrieks from her and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified that I hid in the closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next…I had never seen anything like it before.” (16-17)
Most appalling was the master’s defense for the mistreatment by quoting from the Bible. Douglass was an eye-witness to the following incident: “I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As one example, I will state one of the many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture – ‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.’” (44).
Another shocking aspect of slave life was the lack of decent food. A typical day went like this: “Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was poured into a wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.” (28)
At the age of fifteen, Douglass had an epiphany, and set about to break the chains of slavery. First, he stood up to his master, a Mr. Covey, fighting him for two hours. With his master now beaten, Douglass felt his “long-crushed spirit” rise, leaving defiance in its place. This was the turning point for Douglass, who resolved that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” (54) He began to plot his escape from bondage, first by boat and then by train.
In 1835, Frederick Douglass successfully escaped to freedom by train and by boat. Boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland, he was given identification papers by a free black, and donned a sailor’s uniform. He then crossed the Susquehanna by ferry and traveled by train to Wilmington, Delaware. At Wilmington, he took a steamship to Philadelphia, and continued on the New York.
Here is howDouglass described his new-found freedom: ‘I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me… I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe…Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil." (The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 170).
From this point on, Douglass was blessed with good fortune and support. His first speech at New Bedford, Massachusetts was met with wide acclaim. For the next sixty years, his life was filled with many accomplishments and honors, among them: successful journalist and owner of the North Star newspaper; friend to President Lincoln; appointment to U. S. Marshall; appointment to the office of Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D. C.; candidate for Vice-President of the United States; supporter of equal rights for women; widely traveled lecturer.
After his death in 1895, a monument to him was built in Rochester, New York, where he had published the North Star newspaper. His home, Cedar Hill, in Washington, D. C. became a National Historic Site. A U. S. postage stamp was created in his honor and many of his original documents are held at the Library of Congress.
I believe that one of his greatest legacies is that his autobiography is required reading in schools and colleges across the United States. His words live on and continue to inspire us as they continue to remind us to keep believing in ourselves.