No Struggle, No Progress

Frederick Douglass, as a young man speaking against slavery. So often we see pictures of leaders from their later years, here is Douglass from his prime. public domain art

As I complain about my struggles, I read this phrase from Frederick Douglass’s life and question the value of my own frustrations. Born into slavery between two races on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818, Douglass endured the lashes of his owners, Aaron Anthony, Hugh and Thomas Auld, in his youth. He never knew his father, and his mother, who was hired out to a series of plantations, quickly relinquished his care to his grandmother, Betsy Bailey. When he was six, the boy moved to the Wye Plantation, where he “wept a boy’s bitter tears” to learn his “grand-mammy was gone.” Douglass would later write, “Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families.” Given the color of his skin, most believed his father to be white, quite likely one of the plantation owners.

Inspiring the Future

“What man has made; man can unmake.” Frederick Douglass

A self-made man, Douglass learned to use his voice and pen to awaken America to the true nature of slavery, then to support human rights. His name came to light recently when another son of Maryland, Wes Moore, borrowed Frederick Douglass’s Bible and paired it with his grandfather’s Bible, as he became the first Black governor of Maryland (and third in the nation). In 1899, Washington’s AME church had given this Bible to Douglass as he traveled to Haiti to serve as President Benjamin Harrison’s U.S. resident minister and counsel general at age 71.

Governor Moore’s election came not as a “just over the line” victory but as a 63.29% win over his Republican challenger. Moore served in the Army in Afghanistan (43rd Maryland), graduated from Johns Hopkins, and became a Rhodes Scholar. He developed BridgeEDU, a nonprofit, to reinvent the first year for undergraduate students to increase the likelihood of their academic success.

The two men showed a similar mission to use education as a tool. Though centuries apart, each realized how learning could be a building block to a successful future. Unlike Moore, Douglass did not have parents who could teach him to read. So, he sought people who would lead him to knowledge. Once he learned to read himself, he gathered others in groups to spread literacy to them–knowing the power it holds. From that experience and his work recruiting Black men to serve in the Union Army (raised in the South where it was illegal to teach them), Douglass said this:

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

Young Douglass felt rage in seeing his aunt whipped by the master for sharing her affections with a younger man, instead of him. Douglass had his own welts that he would carry for a lifetime, but being unable to protect her gave him a long-lasting scar that he did not bear on his back. He lived in a “slave society” where the master’s authority over his bondmen defined all social relations, and all economic production depended intimately on the slaves’ brawn, brains, and compliance. Douglass saw slave life go from dawn to dusk, worried about money or hunger, eating, playing, loving, hating, marrying, worshipping God, singing, and dying in a world shaped by slavery. He saw a world that “enforced the right to own him body and soul.”(Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003) p. 8-10.

Douglass’s education began with Charles Lawson, an older man who worked at the Dungain & Bailey Shipyard at Fells Point/Baltimore with him and strengthened his faith, leading the teenager to seek greater knowledge. He called Lawson “uncle” and “father” and remembered later, “I could teach him the letter, and he could teach me the spirit.” He learned about Paul, the prisoner prophet, and the stories he carried throughout life. Lawson told the young man that God had “great work” for him and encouraged Douglass that slavery would not be permanent, which gave him hope.

Desperate to learn to write, Douglas snuck into the Auld’s library when they were away. He copied passages from the Webster Spelling Book. The Columbian Orator, the Bible, and the Methodist Hymnal. Words became his reason to live.

He used every opportunity to expand his knowledge. Sent to Baltimore’s shipyards as a teen by an angry master for an escape attempt, Douglass learned the caulking trade and thanked his luck he wasn’t sent to slavery on a Southern plantation. He hated “the right of the robber,” who took his slave’s earnings and gave them to his enslaver. Auld still owned his body and labor but could not possess his mind. He wrote from his heart: “To make a contented enslaved person, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason.

“He must know no Higher Law than his master’s will. . . if there be one crevice through which a single drop can fall, it will certainly rust off the slave’s chains,” he expressed his thoughts on the psychology of enslaved person and master.

Auld took all his $9 earnings but twenty-five cents the Saturday before Douglass fled. Anna Murray, his future wife, sold a featherbed, and together they raised enough for actual train fare, not on the underground. What Douglass learned about ships and the sea helped him escape. He got “free papers” to use at checkpoints from a retired black sailor and taught himself “to talk sailor like an old salt.” Douglass gathered “an authentic sailor’s red shirt and tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied carelessly and loosely about the neck.” He could speak the language of the sea and believed himself ready to “Talk sailor like an old salt.”

Douglass’s Flight from Slavery: Maryland to Massachusetts

On September 3, 1838, Fred went to work early and met Anna a few blocks from the City Dock on the way to the Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad train station. A friend brought his baggage to the Negro car just as the train started moving. The next hurdle he faced would be convincing the conductor that he—the young mulatto Fred Bailey—could be Stanley, darker-skinned, retired Stanley. Mission accomplished. Then a German blacksmith from the shipyards recognized him but “had no heart to betray me.” (Life and Times, 198-99)

At Wilmington, Delaware, he walked off the train and across town to the wharf and a steamboat to take him down the Delaware River to Philadelphia, where he touched free soil for the first time. He waited for the first Black man to ask for directions to the New York’s Willow Street train station. Then Fred took the night train up the side of New Jersey to the Hudson River landing at Hoboken. Around sunrise, he caught a ferry across the Hudson to the Chambers Street dock.

It took reflection, but he remembered the joy of being a “FREEMAN. Walking amid the hurrying throng and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway” (which already could thrill in 1838) “with free earth under my feet.” But, while he already had embraced a role, finding just the correct word to express himself, his joy stumped him. He felt sensations “were too intense and too rapid for words.”

“I felt as one might when escaped from a den of lions,” he wrote. “Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be described, but joy and gladness, like the rainbow of promise, defy alike the pen and pencil.” But he could no longer trust the people around him—any white man could be a potential kidnapper seeking to benefit from a master’s reward. At first, he slept among the barrels at the wharf. Then a black sailor sent him to the home of David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist, newspaper editor, and grocer who lived four or five blocks from the dock. He led the New York Vigilance Committee, aiding fugitive slaves throughout New York City.

Ruggles edited Mirror of Liberty, the first black-owned and operated magazine, and maintained a public reading room with antislavery books and newspapers. Ruggles opened Fred to the dangerous work of abolitionism. His host suggested he change his name to Frederick Johnson, which lasted until he landed in Massachusetts, to get further away from Auld’s slave catchers. There he took the name “Douglass.”

Ruggles mailed Frederick’s letter to a friend in the Baltimore debating society, who contacted Anna, who could not read, and sent her North September 10 for the 24-hour trip parallel to Frederick’s. In her trunk, she carried a “plum-colored silk dress” that she wore in the Ruggles’ small parlor for their marriage three days later. Rev. James W. C. Pennington, who had escaped Maryland a decade earlier, presided.

Douglass planned to continue to Canada, but Ruggles suggested New Bedford, Massachusetts, as a whaling port, where he could find work as a caulker and a welcoming fugitive slave and free black community. So, they left New York aboard the steamer John W. Richmond. (Life and Times, 205-6.)

Little Zion, AME, First Pulpit

 At barely 30, Douglass gave his first official oration from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion pulpit in New Bedford, Massachusetts. After that, he became a sexton, steward, local preacher, and the Sunday school superintendent at the small church of fugitive slaves and free blacks. He later referred to the church as “Little Zion” and remembered it as “among the happiest days of my life.” A year later, Anna gave birth to their third child while they lived in two rented rooms.

Douglass made quite a sensation in the 19th century. Very few whites had seen a talented mixed-race man like Douglass who could both speak and write skillfully. Of course, being an intellectual “oddity” came with cursing and a blessing—the curse of being treated as some freak or not trusted and the blessing that his work to become a self-made man began to bear fruit. But it did not come automatically.

Abolitionists William Garrison came to New Bedford in 1839 to speak, just as his newspaper began to reach Douglass. A year later, Ellis Gray Loring and other white abolitionists “found” Douglass and were eager to have him as a lecturer. “This stunning young fugitive who escaped two years ago was a light mulatto, well, well-formed, of open countenance & speaks very good English.” Loring noted, “Fred is poor, and a laborer, but his speaking skills could produce great effect.” (Within a few years, Douglass left Maryland for a speaking tour of England without papers. The East Coast abolitionists would purchase his freedom from the Aulds by his return. Since he’d gained a following in England, it would be impossible for Douglass to remain a fugitive slave without papers.)

After hearing Douglass speak in 1841, William C. Coffin, a local bookseller and member of a prominent antislavery family invited him to join a large delegation of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society for a “grand convention” on the island of Nantucket. They asked Douglass to speak to a prominent group of white abolitionists, including Garrison. On this rare occasion, Anna accompanied Douglass. The next morning at the conference, Douglass relaxed, which allowed his natural intelligence and wit to shine through. An attendee wrote: “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence. Our best pleaders for the slave held their breath for fear of interrupting him.” (Frederick Douglass, “Living a New Life,” 27).

Douglass: “Putting His Whole Heart into the Cause”

William Garrison, the editor of The Liberator and well-established spokesperson for antislavery, wrote: “I shall never forget his first speech at the convention—the extraordinary emotion it excited in my mind—the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory. . . I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment.”

Douglass believed he found “one in intellect richly endowed – in natural eloquence a prodigy—in soul manifestly ‘created by a little lower than the angels.” Within a week of the conference, Douglass had a new vocation—giving witness to the evils of slavery, attacking racial prejudice, and proslavery in the churches of Massachusetts and New Hampshire for three months, “putting his whole heart in the holy cause.” He would turn his life to the “power of the word” for the next five decades. But, of course, in 1841 and many years hence, he subjected himself to hatred, resistance, and violence, taking risks every time he ventured into proslavery America. And just five years after his Sabbath school sermons.

Douglass garnered hope and learned that antislavery forces should make no compromise with slavery in any form—in church, legislature, or the public square—and should work to destroy the institution, root, and branch in their lifetimes.

David N. Johnson expressed his amazement upon hearing Douglass speak in Boston– like a theatrical event: “His voice rivaled Daniel Webster (the orator of the day) in its rightness, depth, and sonorousness of its cadences.” Johnson noted that “listeners never forgot his burning words, and his rich play of humor left a greater impression.”

Douglass published his first book at 27, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an enslaved American, written by Himself in 1845. Throughout his life, he would publish two others: his masterpiece, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892, three years before he died.)

His commitment to justice and freedom lives on today among those still working to protect democracy and extend educational opportunity to all Americans, like Maryland Governor Wes Moore

Yet to come: Douglass’s lifelong role as a defender of human rights– freedom from slavery, the 14th Amendment (1868); the Black male vote – the 15th Amendment (1870); and the vote for women, the 19th Amendment (1920 when ratified by ¾ of the states, after his death).

Main source and recommended read: David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2018, pp 764.)

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