Frederick Douglass: Escaping Slavery

Historic accounts of slavery in the New World seemed like a colossal distance in time far removed from my reality. This is until I read Frederick Douglass’ book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass which transported me back to the horrors.

The British conceived of slavery in the Americas during the 17th century to provide labor for its plantations after the cost of indentured  servants became too costly. The institution lasted over 200 years.

Frederick Douglass was born in slavery in Talbot County, Maryland between 1817 and 1818 – he did not know exactly when.

narrative on the life of frederick douglass

He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when he was but an infant — before he knew her as my mother. His father was a white man, rumored to be his master, but he knew not of the correctness of that opinion. Any means of knowing was withheld from him. Finding out who was his father was inconsequential anyway.

As was common custom during slavery, a child was placed under the care of a woman who was too old for field labor. Although he saw his mother on a few occasions, each time for a very short in duration at night, the separation hindered the development of the natural affection between the two.

His mother died when he was about seven years old. She was gone long before he knew any thing about it, and he described receiving the tidings of her death with the same emotions as if it was a  stranger.

During his boyhood days, he was sent to Mr. and Mrs. Auld in Baltimore to be a house servant, where he experienced some semblance of freedom. He learned to read and write through the short-lived assistance of his master’s wife, a woman who never previously had a slave under her control. A critical opportunity in his life, as reading and writing were forbidden for slaves.

He wrote:

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.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson best said it, “the mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

Being herded around like cattle with the other slaves, he was contracted out to other plantations. Where a slave ended up serving was never in his control and always a mystery. But, Frederick vowed to take control of his life and forever be free.

Under great peril, Frederick read whatever he got his hands on. According to Warren Buffet, reading 500 pages every day causes knowledge builds up, like compound interest. That was certainly a stretch for Frederick but whatever little he read, counted.

In 1838 around the age of 20, he escaped from slavery and went to New York City. He quickly married Anna Murray, a free colored woman whom he had met in Baltimore, shrugged off his birth name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and moved further north.

In 1841 he addressed a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket and so greatly impressed the group that they immediately employed him as an agent. He was such an impressive orator that many persons doubted that he was a slave.

Frederick went on to play pivotal roles in society including the recruitment of colored men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments for the Civil War. He consistently argued for the emancipation of slaves, and was active in securing and protecting the rights of the freemen.

The biggest lesson I learned from Frederick was the power of reading – expanding one’s mind, dreaming and venturing beyond the artificial boundary lines. He was not willing to settle for a long life of slavery.

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