From the Tomb of Slavery, to the Heaven of Freedom: Biography of Frederick Douglass

American Chronicle
Steve Amoia
September 23, 2008

Steve Amoia has published articles, book reviews, and interviews about alternative health, art history, career-related themes, historical figures, Italian and international soccer, martial arts, psychology, and sports medicine topics. His writing portfolio can be found at He has also co-authored other articles in the American Chronicle.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery during February, 1818, on a plantation on the banks of the Tuckahoe River in Talbot County, Maryland. This was an area located on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He never was told the precise date of his birth. As an adult, he decided to select the 14th, Valentine´s Day, to celebrate his birthday.

"By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday."

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter I.

His mother was named Harriet Bailey, although he did not spend much time with her. He never knew the true identity of his father; however, acknowledged that he was not of African ancestry.

"My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant–before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age."

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter I.

Learning to Read and Write

He learned to read and write initially by the intervention of Mrs. Sophia Auld, who was the wife of his new master in Baltimore, MD. When Mr. Auld learned of this development, he quickly prohibited it. At this time in the United States, there were severe penalties to teach a slave how to read and write. But by force of will, and with extreme self-determination, young Frederick became literate in ways that would shock and surprise his audiences for the rest of his days.

"Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.

´It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.´

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty–to wit, the white man´s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom."

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter VI.

"The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge."

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter VII.

"The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey´s ship-yard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus–"L." When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus–"S." A piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked thus–"L. F." When a piece was for starboard side forward, it would be marked thus–"S. F." For larboard aft, it would be marked thus–"L. A." For starboard aft, it would be marked thus–"S. A."

I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, ´I don´t believe you. Let me see you try it.´ I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way. During this time, my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write."

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter VII.

"From the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom."

"Covey (a slave breaker) said, ´Take hold of him, take hold of him!´ Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours… The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn´t want to get hold of me again. ´No´, thought I, ´you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.´

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood… He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact."

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Chapter X.

Life as a Free Man

Upon his escape from slavery in 1838, he eventually found a new home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He changed his surname to "Douglass." Due to prejudice, he was not able to find employment as a boat caulker; however, he worked a variety of laborer jobs to support himself and his new bride, Anna. The couple would eventually have five children.

A few years later, he made a speech in front of the Anti-Slavery Society of Massachusetts. His oratory and life-story were so impressive to the point that many did not believe he could have been a slave. This lead to the publication of his seminal work, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," in 1845. It remains one of the jewels of the English language, along with his acute observations about his former life. Not to mention the human condition that he so eloquently described.

Publicity from the book forced Mr. Douglass to leave the country. He would spend the next two years on speaking tours in Great Britain and Ireland. After a period of two years, due to contributions from British and Americans, Mr. Douglass was able to buy his freedom. He moved to Rochester, New York, and co-founded with fellow abolitionist, Martin Delaney, "The North Star." In 1851, he began to publish for many years his own journal called the "Frederick Douglass´ Paper." Two of his sons were involved in these publications.

Due to his celebrity and speaking skills, Mr. Douglass reached a wide audience. He continued to lecture about the evils of slavery, and during the Civil War, assisted in the recruitment of black men into the historic 54th and 55th regiments of Massachusetts. In 1863, Mr. Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss the treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army, along with the eventual emancipation from slavery.

Golden Years

After his wife, Anna, died in 1882, he remarried in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a woman 20 years his junior. She was Caucasian, and the daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr., who was a fellow abolitionist. The marriage was not well-received by their respective families. During his later years, Mr. Douglass continued to carry the flame to fight social injustices. He began to speak about women´s suffrage (rights for women), and later would hold a series of government positions. He was the Assistant Secretary to the Santo Domingo Commission, the Marshal of the District of Columbia between the years of 1877 to 1881, the Ambassador to Haiti from 1889 to 1891, along with the District of Columbia Recorder of Deeds between 1881 and 1886. Despite these important and challenging positions, he made a final revision to his earlier autobiography, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" in 1881.

On 20 February 1895, Mr. Douglass died of a heart attack at his beloved D.C. residence which he named "Cedar Hill." His remains are buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Mr. Douglass was born into the shackles of slavery; however, he was always the master of his brilliant mind. Along with his keen observations of human behavior. In that regard, he was the epitome of a free man. His significant contributions, courage, eloquence, and wisdom are the legacy of an extraordinary American.

"The soul that is within me no man can degrade." Frederick Douglass

Online Link to His Book

If you would like to read his book, here is an online link:

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.

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