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very gifted abolitionist orator
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland, on February 7, 1817. At the age of 8, he was sent to Baltimore to work for one of his master's relatives. There, helped by his new master's wife, he began to educate himself. In 1838 he escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he assumed the name of Frederick Douglass. He got a job caulking ships, but the other men in the shipyard refused to work with him because he was black. He went on to hold a number of other jobs, including collecting rubbish and digging cellars.
Douglass's career as an abolitionist began in 1841 at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where his impromptu address to the convention revealed him to be an orator of great eloquence. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society engaged him as an agent, and in that capacity Douglass traveled the northern states making speeches and talking about his experiences as a slave. His skills as an orator gained him admiration and respect among whites and blacks alike and did much to further the cause of the abolitionists.
In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Fearing that his identity as a runaway slave would be revealed when the book was published, he went to England, where he continued to speak against slavery. Once again his oratory skills gained him admirers, some of whom raised funds to purchase his freedom.
Returning to the United States in 1847, Douglass became "station-master and conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York. He also founded the abolitionist newspaper North Star. During the 1850's, Douglass charged that employers hired white immigrants ahead of black Americans, and even accused some abolitionist businessmen of job discrimination against blacks. He also led a successful attack against segregated schools in Rochester.
During the presidential campaign of 1860, Douglass campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, he helped raise two regiments of black soldiers for the Union Army. He discussed the problems of slavery with President Lincoln several times.
After the war, Douglass fought for enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. He served as Marshal of the District of Columbia from 1877 to 1881, Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia from 1881 to 1886, and Minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891.
So impressive were Douglass's oratorical and intellectual abilities that many of his opponents claimed that Douglass had never really been a slave, but was in fact an imposter foisted upon the public by the abolitionists. In reply, Douglass wrote two expanded versions of his autobiography -- My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
Frederick Douglass died in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895.
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This page was last updated on June 22, 2018.