Perhaps, like I was, you are vaguely familiar with the name Frederick Douglas. The history books in school usually briefly mention his name among abolitionists with very little information about who he was and why he is remembered. Several years ago, while studying history with my children, I re-discovered Frederick Douglass. Oh how glad I am that I did! This was an amazing and inspiring man!
Frederick Douglass was born in 1818, the son of a slave woman, and it was rumored that his mother’s master was his father. He never knew exactly when he was born and the identity of his father was never confirmed. His grandparents raised him. Frederick described his time with his grandparents as “spirited, joyous, uproarious and happy.”
At the age of 6, Frederick began to experience the cruel realities of slavery. Frederick described his life as having only two course linen shirts per year, and when those were worn out, he went naked until they received the next years allowance of clothing. They usually slept on the hard clay dirt floor, covered with little more than a course blanket. Children crawled into corners, holes or any little place that would keep them warm. Often they stuck their feet in ashes in order to stay warm. Dinner usually consisted of ash cake (course corn meal mixed with water and baked in the ashes of a fire), a small piece of pork or two salt herrings. Unfortunately, many children weren’t even allowed this meager meal. Frederick was often so hungry that he fought with the dog for the crumbs which fell from the table.
At the age of 8, Frederick was sent to live with his owner’s relatives in Baltimore, Maryland. His assignment was to help care for the family’s two year old son, Tommy, and to run errands for them. Life was looking up for Douglas! He was given his first pair of trousers and a shirt. He slept in a bed with covering to keep him warm, and he was fed well. Sophia, the wife, treated Frederick like her own child. She included him in the family’s activities and read to both Frederick and her son Tommy everyday.
This was Frederick’s first introduction to the world of words and he took to it like a duck to water. It didn’t take long before he began memorizing passages of the Bible and mastered the alphabet and three to four letter words. This education abruptly came to an end when Sophia’s husband discovered that she had been teaching Frederick. He explained to her that it was against the law to teach a slave to read and further said, “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell”, and “he should know nothing but the will of his master and learn to obey it.” The philosophy of that time was that the education of a slave would make them unfit as a slave. It would fill their heads with all sorts of dreams and ideas.
They were probably right.
But by then, Frederick’s desire to learn had already been awakened. There was no going back to ignorance and illiteracy. Further more, Frederick realized that education was a “direct pathway from slavery to freedom.” So he decided that he would continue his education–at all costs! He would bribe his friends with biscuits to give him a lesson here and there, and by the time he was thirteen years old he had succeeded in learning how to read. His ability to read opened his eyes to a world he had never known existed. His mind became full of new ideas, and the more he read, the more he detested slavery and those who enslaved him.
Around the time he learned to read, he was taken under the wing of a man he called Uncle Lawson. He called Uncle Lawson his spiritual father. Lawson told Frederick that the Lord had a great work for him to do. He encouraged Frederick to read and study the scriptures in preparation for this great work. Frederick wrote, “Thus assured, and cheered on, under the inspiration of hope, I worked and prayed with a light heart, believing that my life was under the guidance of a wisdom higher than my own. …I always prayed that God would, of His great mercy, and in His own good time, deliver me from my bondage.”
I want to tell you briefly how Frederick learned to write. He learned four letters by copying the letters found on timber in a ship yard. Determined to learn more letters, he challenged his playmates to beat him in writing letters. They would write on the ground, and fences. Later, he used Tommy’s copy books to practice. He would diligently copy Tommy’s writing for hours, taking the risk of being discovered and beaten. Eventually, he would copy from the Bible, Methodist hymn books and any other books he could get his hands on by staying up late at night when the rest of the family was asleep.
Douglas went on to later escape from slavery and to become the first black to fight for human rights. He began by joining the anti-slavery movement, speaking at rallies all over the north and eventually starting his own antislavery newspaper. He became an adviser to three presidents including Abraham Lincoln, advising them in matters of interest to African Americans. He wrote three autobiographies, the first in response to the criticisms he received for claiming to be a former slave and yet being able to articulate himself as well as any other educated man of his day. In other words, he seemed too educated to be a former slave. He spoke out for the rights of blacks and women. He was also chosen to be a diplomat in the country of Haiti.
Douglas continued to write and lecture up to the day he died.
What an encouraging story of perseverance and vision Douglas’s life tells. Douglas refused to allow his life’s circumstances or even the voices of those around him to keep him from rising up to fulfill the great work that he was destined for. His purpose and passion compelled him to fight, to persevere, and to speak with boldness, not for his own selfish gain, but for the benefit of those who could not speak for themselves.
He was lifted up so that he could lift up others.
I hope to do the same.