Douglass, Frederick (Paper I)
By Brandon Talbot
Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Talbot County, Maryland, his mother was a slave and his father was rumored to be their white slave master. Because slaves were treated as property to be bought and sold, Douglass' owner moved him twenty-five miles away from his mother and siblings. He was raised under the care of his grandmother, Betsy Bailey, on a tobacco and wheat plantation. By experiencing first-hand the deplorable treatment of slaves on plantations, and then seeing free African Americans who inhabited the larger cities, Douglass concluded that slavery was an unacceptable practice.
When Douglass was eight years old, he was sent to live with a new master in Baltimore. While there, Sophia Auld, the wife of his slave master, taught Douglass to read and write. These skills sparked his commitment to education as a means to improve society. As a result, Douglass taught other African-American slaves how to read and write so that they might raise themselves from their plight.
In 1838, Douglass escaped slavery and moved to Massachusetts. Fearing recapture and punishment, he fled to England in 1845. There he earned money as a lecturer, and met people sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement. He was given $711 by a group of English benefactors that enabled him to buy freedom in America. Once his legal freedom was established, he returned to America to help other slaves free themselves from their oppressed conditions (Blassingame 1976, 12).
Abolition, which sought to end slavery, was a complex reform movement that spread through many levels of society between the 1830s and 1860s. It was comprised of both white and African-American people advocating for improved social equality between persons of different colors. Prior to the Civil War, slaves that attained freedom gained it through a trip on the Underground Railroad or by purchasing freedom as Douglass had done. Yet, once free, a slave still had to deal with the outright oppression and prejudice of many white people.
Once slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, equal consideration was not shown to the freed African-American slaves in the country's south or north. Douglass (1881) addressed this as he wrote:
Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves they were not yet quite free. No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, and action of others; and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining that liberty. Yet the Negro after his emancipation was precisely in this state of destitution. (384)
To combat this problem of discrimination, Douglass befriended many people who promoted social justice, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. With the social connection of like-minded individuals, these abolitionists were able to fight oppression and promote the equality of all classes living in America.
In this light, Douglass opposed the American Colonization Society that sought to send freed slaves back to Africa. He did so by arguing that many African-American slaves had lived in America long before their white oppressors, and even more so, they had been born here and contributed many years of labor for the country. They were thus born Americans and should be entitled to the same freedoms as other Americans.
Douglass was convinced that education was useful in bettering the condition of African Americans. He used the communication mechanisms of the time period to distribute his message. He was a practiced orator and a skilled writer. He owned a printing press and published a monthly newsletter as well as several books: The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
The importance of Frederick Douglass lies in his advocating social justice for a group of underrepresented people. He did this by identifying the problems of slavery and discrimination, and then generating activism to change the government's faulty policies. This activism took the forms of lobbying government officials and generating citizen support. Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions to discuss enlisting African-American soldiers to fight in the Civil War. His intent was also to prepare a plan to free slaves, in the event that the War was not won by the North (Douglass 1881, 796). Furthermore, by utilizing communication and promoting education he was able to influence American citizens and people worldwide to consider slavery and discrimination of different classes of people as intolerable.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Frederick Douglass was dedicated to advocacy for the improvement of discriminated groups. As an African American living in a country with government supported slavery, he pushed for social action against racial oppression and discrimination. Furthermore, because he understood first hand what it was like to be discriminated against, he championed other social justice issues such as women's rights. In this sense, his commitment to the ideal of equality for all classes of people encouraged the creation of several laws that improved the social condition of all Americans.
By escaping slavery with his flight to England and returning to America to help the class of people to which he once belonged, Douglass symbolizes the philanthropic spirit. He gave his time, energy, and service to help other African Americans obtain increased freedom. This duty to other people is made evident by his own words:
for no man who lives at all, lives unto himself; he either helps or hinders all who are in anywise connected with him. I never rise to speak before an American audience without something of the feeling that my failure or success will bring blame or benefit to my whole race. (Douglass 1881, 384)
Thus, he felt that his own personal struggle was to be shared with others so that they might promote the ideal of equality for all classes of people.
Key Related Ideas
Important People Related to the Topic
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a leading African-American writer, scholar, pacifist, and minority rights activist. He was a founder of the Niagara Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Pan African Movement. Du Bois became an international figure as he created a connection between the subjugated status of African Americans and other people in colonized countries around the world.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a well-published writer of fictional novels, children's books, geographical and biographical writings, and periodicals. Stowe is best-known as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a portrayal of slave life that caused great controversy and social upheaval at the time. Stowe, a staunch abolitionist, was the sister of education reformer Catharine Beecher.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) is the quintessential rags-to-riches example of the self-made African American businesswoman. Born the daughter of two slaves, Walker went farm laboring to laundering clothes, to founding a haircare dynasty based on a product she invented. During her lifetime, Walker made large contributions to establish a YMCA for the African American community and to lobby for anti-lynching laws.
David Walker (approximately 1796-1830) was a free black that wrote Appeal, an anti-slavery document calling all slaves to revolt. Published in 1829, Appeal spoke out against the viewpoints that African Americans were not considered human, that they should be sent back to Africa to form a colony there (Walker believed America was built on slaves blood and tears), and that any other groups in history (ie., Jews or Roman slaves) suffered worse treatment than black slaves in America. For excerpts, see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2931t.html.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
The National Center for Black Philanthropy was incorporated in 1999 to "promote and strengthen African American participation in all aspects of modern philanthropy." It provides information on African American giving and volunteerism, promotes black philanthropy, sponsors research on "the benefits of black philanthropy to all Americans" and produces publications and conferences on related topics (see http://www.ncfbp.org/).
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at http://www.naacp.org/, gives an extensive history of the country's oldest civil rights organization, as well as information about NAACP's programs, related news, awards, and resources.
Related Web Sites
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress Web site is the definitive Douglass site, found at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/doughtml/. It contains a brief biography, including information on Douglass' family tree and a timeline. Most importantly, it includes several of the author's works.
Northwestern School of Speech Communication Studies Web site, at http://douglassarchives.org/doug_a68.htm, presents Douglass' "A Plea for Free Speech in Boston," originally given in 1860.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
Blassingame, John. Frederick Douglass: The Clarion Voice. N.p.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1976.
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his Early Life as a Slave, his Escape from Bondage, and his Complete History to the Present Time [electronic edition]. Originally published 1881. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. [updated 4 April 2002; cited 4 January 2003]. Available from http://docsouth.unc.edu/douglasslife/douglass.html.
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. American Abolitionism. [updated 10 June 2002; cited 25 November 2002]. Available from http://www.iupui.edu/~douglass/aap/.
Library of Congress. The Fredrick Douglass Papers. [updated 15 November 2001; cited 25 November 2002]. Available from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/doughtml/doughome.html.
Martin, Mike W. Virtuous Giving: Philanthropy, Voluntary Service, and Caring. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-253-33677-5.
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