African American Abolitionist, 1818-1895

Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, in approximately 1818. As a boy, his quick mind was recognized by the wife of his slave master--who taught him to read. Douglass's master eventually forbade these lessons on the grounds that an educated slave could easily escape. Douglass, realizing that education was his path to freedom, secretly taught himself to read and even started teaching other slaves to read. Using forged papers, he escaped to freedom in New York City on September 4, 1838.

Douglass was a skilled writer and eloquent speaker. He committed his life to achieving justice for all Americans. His influential "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave, Written By Himself" was published in 1845. Because of his efforts, he has been called the father of the civil rights movement. He served as advisor to American presidents; Abraham Lincoln singled him out as the most meritorious man of the 1800s. He encouraged 200,000 blacks to fight for the North in the Civil War. He also worked for women's rights and spoke at the Seneca Falls, NY conference on Women's Emancipation.
A HUSH is over all the teeming lists,
And there is pause, a breath-space in the strife;
A spirit brave has passed beyond the mists
And vapors that obscure the sun of life.
And Ethiopia, with bosom torn,
Laments the passing of her noblest born.

She weeps for him a mother's burning tears --
She loved him with a mother's deepest love.
He was her champion thro' direful years,
And held her weal all other ends above.
When Bondage held her bleeding in the dust,
He raised her up and whispered, "Hope and Trust."

For her his voice, a fearless clarion, rung
That broke in warning on the ears of men;
For her the strong bow of his power he strung,
And sent his arrows to the very den
Where grim Oppression held his bloody place
And gloated o'er the mis'ries of a race.

And he was no soft-tongued apologist;
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark-hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil's due.

Through good and ill report he cleaved his way
Right onward, with his face set toward the heights,
Nor feared to face the foeman's dread array, --
The lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites.
He dared the lightning in the lightning's track,
And answered thunder with his thunder back.

When men maligned him, and their torrent wrath
In furious imprecations o'er him broke,
He kept his counsel as he kept his path;
'Twas for his race, not for himself, he spoke.
He knew the import of his Master's call,
And felt himself too mighty to be small.

No miser in the good he held was he, --
His kindness followed his horizon's rim.
His heart, his talents, and his hands were free
To all who truly needed aught of him.
Where poverty and ignorance were rife,
He gave his bounty as he gave his life.

The place and cause that first aroused his might
Still proved its power until his latest day.
In Freedom's lists and for the aid of Right
Still in the foremost rank he waged the fray;
Wrong lived; his occupation was not gone.
He died in action with his armor on!

We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent throughout the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle-cry.
O'er all that holds us we shall triumph yet,
And place our banner where his hopes were set!

Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o'er the gale!
Thou'st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar,
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And, rising from beneath the chast'ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!

-from Lyrics of Lowly Life, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1869)

Frederick Bailey was born sometime in the early 1800s in Tuckahoe, Maryland. His father was a white man, and his mother, Harriet, was a slave. Frederick hardly ever saw his mother, and she died when he was very young. He was sold repeatedly by several masters, and did various work, but mostly housework. During these years, he saw his own family beaten and whipped, and many murders unfold right in front of his face. However, the wife of one of his masters caught onto his sharpness and taught him the alphabet. Before she could teach him how to read or write, the master found out and forbade his wife to teach him any further. But she had “given (Frederick) the inch, and no precaution could prevent (Frederick) from taking the ell”

He learned how to read and write by working in a shipyard, copying the letters of the sides of boats, by challenging other boys to write better than he. Over time, these clever methods made him hate slavery more and more, until he decided he wanted out. He escaped to the North in 1838. In that same year, he married Anna Murray, a free black. Frederick Bailey became a successful orator and abolitionist. We know Frederick Bailey as Frederick Douglass.

Douglass recorded his experiences in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself and it was published in 1845, a very brave move on his part, for any suggestion of how he escaped or who helped him could drag him right back into slavery, regardless of his reputation in the North. Douglass was involved in politics, but never held an office, which was the only extent to which he could partake in political matters.

During the Civil War, Douglass was a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He encouraged Northern African Americans to fight for the Union. After the war, he continued to speak, most prominently at the Seneca Falls convention, and because of his efforts, he has been called the father of Civil Rights, as mattbw said.

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