The first slaves were brought to North America in 1619, when the colony at Jamestown, Virginia was formed. It was not until 1863, that all slaves were freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. If you quickly do the math you begin to realize that there were slaves on our soil for two hundred forty four years before that barbarous practice was finally outlawed. It is difficult to even consider how anyone might have ever believed holding another human being in bondage was anything other than immoral. Even considering that times and ways of thinking were different doesn’t seem to absolve the ignorance and evil associated with that custom. The old argument that it was legal so it must be okay trumped common sense and the concerns of religious groups and abolitionists. Those who advocated freedom for all people were often considered overzealous kooks who simply did not understand the complexities of the situation. Most citizens simply looked the other way rather than honestly face the horrific realities of slavery. It was easier to keep it in place than to insist that it be abolished forever.
As with all of history there have always been courageous individuals who have been willing to endure unremitting criticism in a quest for what they believed to be right and just. Frederick Douglass was one of those people. Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818, and named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was a slave who had little memory of his mother who was traded away while he was still a baby, a common practice designed to keep enslaved people from forming strong attachments to one another. Frederick was moved from one master to another over time. When he was twelve the wife of one of his owners taught him the alphabet and the basics of reading. From this humble beginning he stealthily taught himself how to read and write, often glimpsing newspapers and books when no one was watching. For the rest of his life he believed that “once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” In that spirit he taught other slaves how to decipher the words of the Bible when they came to Sunday school. Once the owners learned what was happening they put an end to the lessons by beating the congregants and disbanding the services for good.
Eventually when Douglass was sixteen years old he ended up in the hands of a man known to be adept at breaking the spirit of slaves. The overseer beat Douglass mercilessly but the sixteen year old fought back in both body and mind. He had already read enough to understand fully that his imprisonment was morally wrong and he became more and more determined to find a way to freedom. After multiple attempts he finally managed to make his way to New York City where he was protected in a safe house run by David Ruggles. He was twenty years old and eager to advocate for other slaves still held in bondage. The year was 1838. It would be twenty five years before Douglass saw his dream of emancipation come true.
Frederick married a free black woman whom he had previously met and they settled in Massachusetts. It was at this time that he chose Douglass as his new last name. He quickly became known as an eloquent orator and writer among abolitionists and was often featured at gatherings of anti-slavery groups. This was a difficult route to follow. He and those with whom he worked were often the victims of violence. Still he dedicated his life not only to abolishing slavery but also to advocating for the rights of women to vote noting, “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.”
Douglass was a highly religious man who openly criticized those Christians who remained silent about slavery saying that their refusal to speak up for what was right and just was an abomination of the teachings of Christ. “Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other – devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”
By the outbreak of the Civil War Douglass had become one of the most famous and outspoken black men in the country with his views being published and discussed in gatherings across the globe. His influence was so great that he often conferred with President Lincoln whom he was not loath to criticize for taking too long to free the slaves. He worked tirelessly to secure the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments which outlawed slavery, provided citizenship and equal protection under the law and protected all citizens from being discriminated against in voting.
Douglass continued to work for causes of fairness and equality for another twenty five years after the war had ended. He understood that there was still much to be done and many injustices to be overcome. He wrote for newspapers and authored books. He spoke all over the world reminding people that “where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
Frederick Douglass died at the age of seventy four of a heart attack or possibly a stroke. He had energetically fought for the rights of all people for his entire life admonishing his fellow man to consider our shared humanity. “A smile or a tear has not nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.”