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David Nightingale: Douglass

Frederick Douglass
National Archives and Records Administration - Public Domain

I became interested in Frederick Douglass after seeing his unsmiling and magnificent likeness on a US postage stamp in 1967. Now, I follow up.

He was probably born in 1818, and it is certain that he died in February 1895. His slave mother’s name was Bailey.

He later wrote:

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant.…[and] the opinion was…whispered … that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing.… It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.… I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day … She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.

His mother had been sent to a plantation in Maryland, and Douglass was raised by his maternal grandmother, also a slave, and grandfather, a free man. At the age of 6 he was sent to work for the wife of a Thomas Auld, who gave the boy to her sister-in-law in Baltimore. The sister-in-law was a kind woman who gave him a clean bed with sheets and who taught him the alphabet, but by the time he was 12 she had come to believe, from her husband, that education and slavery were incompatible, and from then on forbade him to read. Nevertheless, he learned more from some white boys – and he seemed to be a natural as regards writing, later in life becoming an orator and author.

But at 15 he was sent back to his original owner, Thomas Auld, who cruelly employed a “slave breaker” by the name of Covey who beat him daily. At 16 Douglass decided to fight back, with the result that Covey never laid a hand on him again.

At 19 Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman 5 years his senior, who encouraged him to escape – which he did one year later. With some money from Anna, and some seamen’s travel papers and uniform, he was able to board a train near Baltimore, which took him to the north-east corner of Maryland. The details of this journey are given in the book by Blight [ref.2], and within a total of 24 hours Douglass had reached New York City. He wrote:

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... gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.

Within a few days he was able to send for Anna.

Douglass became a preacher and orator, and wrote his first autobiography, “Narrative” [ref.1]… when he was 27. The book quickly became a best seller, with translations into Dutch and French, and he was invited on a speaking tour of Ireland and England, which lasted two years. Later in life he was able to make more trips, including to Egypt.

He and Anna made a home in Rochester, NY, where they lived for 25 years. Throughout his life he spoke tirelessly and eloquently, in churches and at suffrage movements, in Massachusetts and New York, on equality, and on freedom for all, male and female, black and white.

He and Anna had five children, and his 3 sons supported the Union cause in the Civil War. During his life he wrote 2 more autobiographies [refs.3,4], and lived for 10 years in a house with Anna in Washington DC – ‘Cedar Hill’, now a National Historic Site. When Anna died he was in his 60s. Two years later, 1884, he married a white woman – Helen Pitts, 20 years his junior and a graduate of Mount Holyoke College.

His gravestone, and his 1899 statue, are in Rochester N.Y.


1.  “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”, published by The Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, Mass, 1845.  (Also, see later Dover publications.)

2.  “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”, by David W. Blight; Simon & Schuster, 2018.

3.  “My bondage and my freedom”, 1855 (i.e. 10 years after the first).

4.   “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass”, 1881, (revised edition,1893, includes his diplomatic mission in Haiti.)

David Nightingale has published in both the Astrophysical Journal and The American Journal of Physics, and is the author of the science-fiction novel The Centauri Settlement published by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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