February is Black History Month in the United States. So, today I am going to talk about Frederick Douglass. He has a cool beard and mustache that looks great with his white hair from later years. But what is extra cool about him is his eyes. They are intense, intelligent, and piercing. On top of having a great mustache he has a great story. All of that makes him perfect for this episode of Great Mustaches in History.
Way back in about 1818 a little baby was born that would grow up to help change the world. That baby’s name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Later he changed his name to Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, public-speaker, and writer.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and then helped end slavery. He dazzled audiences and he wrote very important things about ending slavery.
You may not believe this but back then some slave-owners said that slaves could never be smart enough to be American citizens. Well, that dumb argument would not work when such a brilliant man as Frederick Douglass was going all over the nation giving great speeches.
Frederick Douglass wrote about his experiences in slavery in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. This book helped end slavery.After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass kept working to help the United Stated really become the “land of the free.”
Frederick Douglass believed all people were equal. It did not matter whether a person was black, female, Native American, or anything else. He said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland. His mother was Harriet Bailey. It was rumored that his father was their slave-master. No one knows for sure. After escaping to the North, he changed his last name to Douglass.
Back then people did not always keep the exact dates that slaves were born. On the first page of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he wrote: “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” Since he did not know his birthday he chose to celebrate it on February 14.
Listen how sad it is when he spoke of his earliest times with his mother:
- “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant…. 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.”
It gets even more sad. Frederick Douglass’ mother died when he was about ten, but he had been separated from her for a long time by then.
For a while he lived with his grandmother, Betty Bailey. But when he was seven Frederick Douglass was separated from his grandmother and moved to the Wye House plantation. Aaron Anthony worked as the overseer but when he died, Frederick Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld. She sent Frederick Douglass to serve her brother-in-law Hugh Auld in Baltimore.
You get the idea that he was moved around a lot and that everyone close to him kept dying?
When Frederick Douglass was about twelve years old, Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia Auld started teaching him the alphabet. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. Fredrick Douglass said Sophia Auld was a kind and tenderhearted woman. He said she treated him the way one human being ought to treat another.
When Hugh Auld discovered what his wife was doing he got mad. He said if a slave learned to read, he would realize how bad things were and want his freedom. From then on Frederick Douglass had to learn to read from white children in the neighborhood and by peeking at things his masters wrote.
It was hard but Frederick Douglass continued to secretly teach himself how to read and write. He said “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
Frederick Douglass read everything he could get his hands on. He read newspapers and all kinds of books. He began to understand how unfair and stupid slavery is. One special book was The Columbian Orator. It was full of speeches and essays. Later he said it helped him understand and believe that all people should be free and all humans have rights.
While all of this was going on, Frederick Douglass was hired out to William Freeland. On William Freeland’s plantation Frederick Douglass taught other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school.
People started whispering about a slave who was teaching others to read. They kept it quiet for about six months. But you know how it is with secrets. Before long people were finding out.
Now, William Freeland did not really care if his slaves learned to read, but when other plantation owners began to hear about slave learning to read they got mad. One Sunday they got clubs and rocks and beat up the people trying to learn to read. After that, there were no more reading lessons.
In 1833, Hugh Auld got in an argument with his brother Thomas Auld. Technically Thomas Auld still owned Frederick Douglas. Since Thomas Auld was mad, he took Frederick Douglass back from his brother Hugh Auld just to be mean.
Thomas Auld did not really want Fredrick Douglass so he sent him to work for Edward Covey when Fredrick Douglass was about sixteen years old.
This was not good. Edward Covey was really mean. He whipped Douglass a lot. Frederick Douglass almost had his spirit broken by Edward Covey, but he finally rebelled against the beatings and fought back. Like most bullies, after that Edward Covey was afraid and never beat him again.
Frederick Douglass first tried to escape from slavery when he was working for William Freeland. Then he tried to escape from his new owner Edward Covey, but failed both times.
In 1837, Frederick Douglass fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore. Since she was free he began to believe that maybe he could be free some day.
On September 3, 1838, Douglass escaped. He got on a train going to Maryland dressed in a sailor’s uniform that Anna Murray had gotten for him. Frederick Douglass had identification papers from a free black sailor.
He went to Maryland then to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he took a steamboat to Philadelphia then continued to New York City. He ended up at the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles. The whole trip took less than 24 hours.
Frederick Douglass later wrote of his arrival in New York:
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. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ 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. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.
Frederick Douglas married Anna Murray on September 15, 1838. They moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In 1841 Frederick Douglass first heard William Lloyd Garrison speak at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. At one of these meetings, Douglass was unexpectedly invited to speak.
In 1845 Frederick Douglass published, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book became a bestseller.
Ireland and Britain
Slaves were technically “property” and not people. Frederick Douglass’ friends were afraid Hugh Auld might try to get his “property” back. They encouraged Douglass to tour Ireland, as many former slaves had done.
Frederick Douglass spent two years in lecturing in Ireland and Britain. During this trip Frederick Douglass became legally free. British supporters purchased his freedom from his American owner Thomas Auld.
Many people tried to get Frederick Douglass to live in England for the rest of his life so he did not have to ever worry about slavery again. But he knew that there were three million slaves still in the United States. He was determined to work to free them instead of just thinking about himself. So, he left England in spring of 1847.
Return to the United States
In September 1848, Frederick Douglass published an open letter addressed to his former master, Thomas Auld. One part of the letter really made people stop and think. Federick Douglass asked Thomas Auld how he would feel if someone made his daughter Amanda a slave and treated her like he treated his slaves.
By the time of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country. He was known for his speeches about the condition of slaves. Everywhere he spoke crowds came because he was such as great speaker.
President Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation, took effect on January 1, 1863.
Slavery everywhere in the United States was outlawed by the 13th Amendment. The 14th Amendment provided for citizenship and equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment protected all citizens from being discriminated against in voting because of race.
Douglass and Lincoln
Years later, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. Frederick Douglass talked about Lincoln. He pointed out both the positive and negative things about President Lincoln.
But Frederick Douglass also asked,
“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?”
At this speech he also said:
“Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery….”
The crowd gave him a standing ovation. Abraham Lincoln’s widow Mary Lincoln gave President Lincoln’s favorite walking stick to Frederick Douglass in appreciation.
In his last autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass referred to Lincoln as America’s “greatest President.”
After the Civil War
After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was appointed to several political positions. He kept making speeches about voting rights. He said:
“A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box. Let no man be kept from the ballot box because of his color. Let no woman be kept from the ballot box because of her sex.”
In 1877, Douglass visited his former master Thomas Auld, who was about to die, and the two men reconciled.
For 25 years after the end of the Civil War Frederick Douglass used his speeches toemphasize that racism was wrong.
On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass went to a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. During that meeting, they gave him a standing ovation.
Shortly after he returned home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke. He was buried in the Douglass family plot of Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.
- Frederick Douglass took the name Douglass from a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.
- Frederick Douglass’ son, Lewis Henry Douglass, served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A long time ago there was a movie called “Glory” about them
- On June 19, 2013, a seven-foot bronze statue of Frederick Douglass was unveiled in the United States Capitol.
When Frederick Douglass was old, he had a great head of white hair, a beard and a great mustache. His eyes are piercing but what really makes him a “Great Mustache in History” is all he overcame and accomplished for other people.