Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Frederick Douglas, the renowned abolitionist, orator, and former slave, lived for many years in Philadelphia.
Born in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818, Douglass journeyed from slavery to freedom in his youth and then gained a worldwide reputation as an orator and activist. His life also intersected with many key events in American history: the abolitionist movement, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, the Civil War, emancipation, black suffrage, and temperance. A successful writer as well as a persuasive speaker, Douglass also wrote three autobiographies—the most famous of which was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)—and founded his own magazine, the North Star (1847-1851). After a full and influential life, Frederick Douglass passed away in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey along Tuckahoe Creek, in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818. The exact date of his birth is unknown. His mother, a slave, was Harriet Bailey; aside from his father being noted as a white man, his identity is unknown. Douglass spent the first 20 years of his life in slavery.
Douglass acquired no formal education but received reading lessons through the instruction of Sophia Auld, the wife of his slave master, Hugh Auld. Once Mr. Auld found out about these lessons, however, he forbade her to instruct Douglass further. Douglass then traded bread for reading lessons with the poor white school boys in his neighborhood. When Douglass was 18 years of age, Auld decided that Douglass should work as a caulker, sealing boats with a putty-like sealant or oakum to prevent water leakage. After completing his apprenticeship, Douglass held a paying job but had to turn most of his money over to his master.
Douglass began to plan his escape to freedom. Disguising himself as a free seaman, complete with forged papers, on September 3, 1838, he bought a ticket to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But even after arriving in the North, he knew he was not safe from slave catchers, so he kept on the move. After a brief stay in Maryland, Douglass ended up in New York and sent for his fiancée, Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. The two were married on September 15, 1838.
Still seeking safety, he and his wife then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here, white shipyard employees would not allow skilled black tradesmen like Douglass to work beside them. Unable to find work as a caulker, Douglass had to work as a common laborer. He sawed wood, shoveled coal, dug cellars, and loaded and unloaded ships. Douglass also became an abolitionist, joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
Douglass's career as an orator and writer began in August 1841, when William Lloyd Garrison hired him as an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass sold subscriptions to the Liberator and Anti-Slavery Standard newspapers by lecturing throughout the North on his experiences with slavery. In a speech given in Rochester on Independence Day in 1852, Douglass explained what the Fourth of July meant to America's slaves: nothing.
In 1842, Douglass moved to England and began giving lectures there. The World Temperance Convention, held in London in August 1846, was the scene of another one of Douglass's controversial speeches. Douglass had allegations brought against him for attacking the American Temperance movement for its failure to criticize slave owners who used alcohol to pacify their workers and his disapproval of temperance activists hostile toward free blacks. In the mid-1850s, John Brown, the leader of one of the Free Soil bands, a party trying to stop the spread of slavery into areas west of the Mississippi River, wanted to start a slave revolt in the South. Brown wrote to Douglass and asked him to come to a meeting in August in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He tried to get Douglass to join the attack. Douglass refused. In 1859, during a lecture in Philadelphia, Douglass heard that Brown had followed through with his attack and in result was tried for treason and hanged. Warned that letters had been found implicating him in the attack, Douglass fled to Canada and wrote letters justifying both his flight and his refusal to help Brown. Douglass's self-defense worked: charges were never filed, and he was able to return to the United States.
In response to the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued on December 31, 1862, declaring freedom to all slaves outside of union territory, Douglass wrote a speech about the spirit of those who had gathered with him at the telegraph office to witness slavery's death. He then gave a series of recruitment speeches to persuade free black men to enlist in the Union Army.
Some years later, in 1866, the radical Republicans held a meeting in Philadelphia to vote on a resolution calling for black suffrage; Douglass attended the convention as a delegate from New York. There he encountered the racial prejudices of the Republican politicians who were unwilling to associate with blacks on an equal level.
Renowned as an orator, Douglass also established himself as a successful writer. In March 1839, some of Douglass's speeches opposing the colonization of African Americans, the proposal to return freed slaves to Africa, were published in the Liberator. These anti-colonization statements displayed Douglass's disagreement with sending freed slaves back to Africa because he felt it turned his people into refugees.
On December 3, 1847, in Rochester, New York, Douglass began publishing his four-page weekly newspaper that he founded and edited: the North Star.The North Star allowed Douglass to report on problems blacks faced across the country. Douglass also wrote three autobiographical works throughout the course of his life: the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, updated in 1892). His first memoir, the Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845), quickly sold 5,000 copies, a large number for that time.
Douglass's wife, Anna, died in August 1882. Two years after his wife's death, Douglass married Helen Pitts, his white secretary. On February 20, 1895, just months after delivering his last major speech, The Lessons of the Hour, Douglass suffered a massive heart attack and died, at the age of 77, at Cedar Hill, his Washington, D.C. home. Black public schools closed for the day.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Dublin: Webb and Chapman, 1845.
My Bondage and My Freedom.New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.Hartford, CT: Park Publishing Co. 1881, reprint 1892.
Reconstruction. In the University of Virginia. Library. Electronic Text Center. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library; Boulder, Colo.: Net Library, 1996.
An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage. In University of Virginia Library; Boulder, Colo.: Net Library Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library; Boulder, Colo.: Net Library, 1996.
North Star.Rochester, NY: William C. Nell, 1847-1851.
Chesebrough, David B. Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Douglass, Frederick. 1845. Ed. David W. Blight. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave.Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.
Emigration. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Francis Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.