February 14th – Frederick Douglass

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. No records of his birthdate exist, so, remembering that his mother called him her ‘Little Valentine,’ he later choose February 14th as his birthday. He was separated from his mother as an infant, and by six from his grandmother who was raising him. At the age of 12, his owner’s wife began to teach him to read, a turning point in his life when he realized that “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” This knowledge, along with being hired out to a ‘slave-breaker’ who constantly beat him, made Douglass resolve to gain his freedom.

In 1837 he fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore who encouraged and aided him. Murray secured a uniform and papers to disguise Douglass as a free black sailor, and on On September 3rd, 1838, he jumped a train North and escaped slavery. In less than a full day, he made it to freedom in New York, and Murray traveled up to meet him. They were married on September 15th, 1838. The couple settled in Massachusetts taking the surname of Douglass, and Douglass built his oratory skills by becoming a licensed preacher. 

In 1840 he traveled to Elmira, New York, to speak. It was a popular stop on the Underground Railroad and started his National reach. This was pretty brave. He was less than two years escaped, and there would have been big rewards and heavy punishment for his capture – including death. By 1843 he had joined other speakers with the “American Anti-Slavery Society” on a tour of the eastern and mid-western United States. Angry mobs of slavery supporters often accosted the tour, and in one instance, Douglass’ hand was broken. The injury bothered him throughout his life. 

In 1845 he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It became a bestseller and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition. He followed it up with My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855.

During the Civil War, Douglass worked as an advisor to President Lincoln and argued that black men should fight for the Union cause. His famous broadside “Men of Color To Arms! Now or Never!” helped recruit black soldiers. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, joined the 54th Infantry.

His third and final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglasswas published in 1881 and revised in 1892. 

His wife Anna died in 1882, and Douglass was devastated. In 1884 he married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist. The marriage caused a lot of scandal because Pitts was white and was twenty years younger than Douglass. Douglass stated in a letter to a friend “What business has the world with the color of my wife?”

On February 20th, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C.

Lesson from Douglass

Douglass understood the importance of image and was intentional in the way he was portrayed. His writing and oration were a living testament against the slaveholder’s theories that black people were intellectually inferior. But he also subverted the popular portrayal of black people through his portraiture. Douglass sat for so many portraits – intentionally well-dressed, regal, and strong – he is the most photographed American of the 19th century. 

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