More than 100 years after his death, Frederick Douglass is still making news. The revered author, abolitionist, social reformer, and orator was cited as “somebody who’s done an amazing job” and “is being recognized more and more” by President Donald Trump during a White House listening session on Black History Month in early February.
On February 22, Lissa Brassfield, history professor at College of the Canyons in Valencia, enthusiastically shared Douglass’ many achievements with attendees at a “Scholar Series” presentation at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center.
“He’s one of my favorite people in history and just a premier figure in the history of African Americans,” Brassfield said.
Born into 1818 to a slave mother, Douglass’ father was widely believed to be fathered the slave master at a Maryland plantation. He was quickly separated from his mother, a common practice at the time, and sent to a plantation 12 miles away to be with his grandmother, Betty Bailey.
He was sent away again at age 10 to the Auld Plantation in Baltimore, where the master’s wife took a liking to the bright young boy. Though illegal, Sophia Auld taught Douglass the basics of reading and writing. Hugh Auld, the master, eventually put an end to the practice, but Douglass learned enough to continue enhancing his knowledge.
Auld sent Douglass away to a smaller farm at the age of 16, where he was severely beaten in an attempt to break his spirit. Douglass fought back against his master, Edward Covey, and won. Covey never beat him again.
In 1838, Douglass was able to escape slavery after meeting Anna Murray, a free black woman five years his senior, who hatched the successful plan. She provided Douglass a sailor’s uniform and a seaman’s ID so he could board a train and head east to Philadelphia, an anti-slavery stronghold.
The couple married and eventually settled in Massachusetts, taking the surname Douglass, and he became a Presbyterian preacher. A turning point came when Douglass subscribed to William Garrison’s weekly newsletter, “The Liberator.”
As Brassfield noted, Douglass later wrote of Garrison, “His paper has taken a place in my heart second only to the bible.”
After meeting, Garrison invited Douglass to speak at the 1841 Anti Slavery Society Convention. He was 23 years old. By 1843, Douglass joined several other speakers for a 6 month tour across the East and Midwest.
“During this time, people thought racism was only in the south. That was not true,” Brassfield said.
Douglass wrote his first autobiography in 1845. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” was so popular, it was reprinted nine times in three years, with 11,000 copies in the United States and translated versions in French and Dutch available in Europe.
“Some skeptics didn’t believe that a black man could be so eloquent,” Brassfield said.
During a tour of Europe, Douglass was amazed at that country’s attitude towards race. “I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab — I am seated beside white people — I reach the hotel — I enter the same door — I am shown into the same parlour — I dine at the same table — and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.”
Douglass spent two years in Europe, giving lectures at churches and chapels. During that time, his European supporters raised money to purchase Douglass’ from Thomas Auld. He returned to the United States in 1847 a free man.
He split from Garrison, whom he felt had become too radicalized, and started his own newspaper “The North Star.” Douglass became an advocate for women’s rights, as well as those of slaves.
“Women didn’t have rights to their children, property, or even their own bodies,” Brassfield said. “Douglass said, ‘In some ways, they are no better off than a black female slave.’”
By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was among the most famous of Americans. He wanted African Americans to be able to fight in the war and when the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted on January 1, 1863, Douglass said, “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky … we were watching … by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day … we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”
Douglass continued to champion civil rights, releasing two more autobiographies and becoming one of the most photographed men of the 19th century. He was very careful about his image, never smiling for the cameras.
“He didn’t want to give the image of the happy slave,” Brassfield said.
Anna Douglass died in 1882. The couple had five children; Annie Douglass died at the age of 10.
In 1844, Douglas married Helen Pitts, a white feminist. The interracial marriage caused a scandal and several members of his own family stopped speaking to Douglass as a result.
As a person of mixed race (white and African, as well as Native American on his mother’s side), Douglass was ahead of his time in accepting people for who they were.
“He considered everyone equal,” Brassfield said.
Douglass continued to speak out in his later years, particularly in opposition of the separatist movement, which many African Americans supported.
“He would get booed and criticized, but Douglass felt you couldn’t separate yourself from the system. You have to live with the system and make it work for everyone,” Brassfield said.
Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke in 1895, but his work is a reminder that America is still a country struggles with true equality.
“He continues to be a great example for those of us who want this to be a United States. With people like him as inspiration, we can continue to do better,” Brassfield said. “I still get chills when I read what Douglass wrote. I get chills.”