A very influential African American leader of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass used his exceptional skills as an orator, writer, journalist, and politician to fight for the ABOLITION of SLAVERY and for an end to RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. He helped to shape the climate of public opinion that led to the ratification of the THIRTEENTH, FOURTEENTH, and FIFTEENTH AMENDMENTS to the U.S. Constitution, which were created in large measure to protect, respectively, the freedom, citizenship, and VOTING RIGHTS of ex-slaves. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is a classic account of the dehumanizing effects of slavery for slave and slaveholder alike.
According to his own calculations, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February 1817, on a plantation west of the Tuckahoe River in Talbot County, Maryland. (As an adult, he celebrated his birthday on February 14.) His mother was a black slave, and his father most likely her white owner. Douglass was separated from his mother at an early age, and at age 7 he was sent to Baltimore to work for a family. He later regarded this change from the plantation to the city as a great stroke of fortune because in Baltimore he was able to begin educating himself. His master's wife taught him the alphabet, and Douglass, under the tutelage of young boys on the streets and docks, proceeded to teach himself how to read and write. Even when he was very young, his limited reading convinced him of the evils of slavery and the need to seek his freedom.
Douglass continued to suffer under slavery. At times during the 1830s, he was sent back to the plantation to endure its scourges, including beatings and whippings. He briefly attempted to teach fellow slaves to read and write, but his efforts were quickly put to an end by whites.
In 1838, living again in Baltimore and caulking ships, Douglass escaped north and won his freedom. He married a free African American woman, Anna Murray, and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. By then a fugitive slave, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass in order to avoid capture. Douglass quickly became a respected member of the community in New Bedford. However, he was disappointed to find that racism was prevalent in the North as well as in the South.
Shortly after his arrival in the North, Douglass became an avid reader of the Liberator, a newspaper...