Frederick Douglass was a former slave and human rights activist, as well as the first African American to hold a high ranking U.S. government position. He was born into slavery; the exact date of his birth is not known but it is estimated to be around 1818. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, and at a young age, was sent to live on his father’s farm, who was a plantation owner. He then moved to Baltimore to live at the home of Hugh Auld. Here, he learned to read with the help of Auld’s wife. When Auld forbade his wife to teach Douglass, he enlisted the help of the local white children.
Douglass became an avid reader and it was through this medium that he expanded his political and moral horizons. He read whatever he could get his hands on – newspapers, political journals and books. When he was hired out to another owner named William Freeland, he taught the children on the new plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly church service. His classes became so popular that some local slave owners tried to break his lessons up by beating the children. He was then sold to a new owner named Edward Covey, who mistreated and abused the young Douglass so harshly that he almost had a psychological breakdown. In one particularly harsh fight, Douglass defeated Covey, who never dared to lay a hand on him again.
Douglass managed to escape his life of slavery with the help of a free black woman named Anna Murray. In 1838, she acquired a sailor’s uniform and personal documentation for him, and Douglass boarded a train to New York. Anna later joined him and the two married, assuming the name of Johnson to protect Douglass’s identity. The couple then moved to Massachusetts and adopted the name of Douglass, settling in the free and thriving black community there. In Massachusetts, Douglass joined the local church and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. His story was narrated in the newspaper “The Liberator” by William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass then delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket, but his radical ideas angered the crowds, and he was chased and beaten by an enraged mob.
Managing to escape with the help of a local Quaker family, Douglass wrote and published his first autobiography titled “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” in 1845. He published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime. Following this, he relocated to Ireland and then to Britain to avoid recapture, where he gained a huge fan following. His fans helped him to legally purchase his freedom and he returned to the United States in 1847 as a free man. Back home, he established abolitionist newspapers such as The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era. He became a supporter of women rights and by the time the Civil War ensued, he was one of the most famous black men in the country. Douglass was appointed to several political positions following the war, including president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and as chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic, and later, minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti.
In 1872, Douglass was nominated as the first African American vice president of the United States. It was done without his knowledge, however, and Douglass did not campaign for the post. A few years later, he reconciled with his former owner Hugh Auld. Douglass had 5 children from his first marriage, and after his wife’s death, he remarried a white woman named Helen Pitts who was a feminist and a graduate of Mount Holyoke College. His marriage caused controversy as Pitts was 20 years younger than Douglass and his interracial marriage alienated him from his family and some of his supporters. However, the couple remained married until Douglass’s death 11 years later in 1895 at the age of 77.