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Biography of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is, possibly, the best known and most distinguished of the "Men of Maryland." Although the exact date of his birth is not definitely known, yet it is agreed that he was born in the month of February, 1817, at Tuckahoe, near Easton, Talbot County, Maryland. His mother was a slave, and his father was a white man, whom he never knew. He never saw his mother after his eighth year. When he was ten years of age, his master Col. Lloyd, "lent" him to a friend in Baltimore. In Baltimore he worked at the trade of a ship-carpenter. When he was fifteen years of age his master permitted him to hire his own time, which he did, paying three dollars a week. As a very small boy Frederick had a keen thirst for knowledge, which had been stimulated by hearing his mistress read the Bible. Yielding to importunity, his mistress began to instruct him, but so rapid was his progress that such instruction was soon discontinued. But, alas, discontinuance was too late. He had gotten a start. In his early years, the Bible, and a copy of the "Columbian Orator" were his chief books of study. For a good while had Douglass been meditating making his escape from bondage. Having armed himself with a "pass" belonging to someone else, on September 3, 1838, leaving Washington he took a train to New York, and managed to get through without any trouble. Upon arriving there, he soon set out for New Bedford, Mass. Up to this time, he was known as "Frederick Lloyd," his real name, but in order not to be detected, caught, and returned to slavery, he changed his name to "Frederick Douglass." Here he worked, at first, around the wharves as a common laborer. He became a factor in the local colored church, and was soon licensed as a local preacher in the African Church. It was in New Bedford that he married his first wife.

In 1841, at an Anti-Slavery Convention held in Nantucket, which he attended, so great and prevailing was impression of his eloquence, that he was appointed Agent of the Society for Massachusetts. During the next few years, his work, in that direction, was with telling effect. Everywhere enthusiasm was intensified and the cause greatly advanced. In 1845, Frederick Douglass was invited, by distinguished Englishmen, to visit that country and deliver addresses in behalf of the Anti-Slavery cause. He readily accepted the invitation, and spent two years there lecturing on behalf of his enslaved brethren in America. He swept everything before him. Ovation after ovation was his.

Having run away from slavery, in the eyes of the law of this country he was still a slave. So Englishmen raised a purse of $750 for the purchase of his freedom, and $2,500 with which to set him up in the newspaper business. Thus on his return to America, he changed his residence from New Bedford to Rochester, N. Y., and in the latter place commenced the publication of his weekly paper, '"Frederick Douglass Paper," afterwards changed to the ''North Star; Thus, he continued in the Anti-Slavery cause, with both voice and paper. He thrilled the multitudes by his eloquence, and edified them through the columns of the "North Star.'' The good work continued until emancipation came.

The grand old man who had battled so nobly for the cause of freedom, with the close of the Civil War, changed his residence from Rochester to Washington. For the ensuing quarter of a century he was the great figure in the life of the colored community of the city of Washington. During this period, while filling public office, he was in constant demand, all over the country, as a public lecturer. In 1871, he was appointed assistant secretary of the San Domingo Commission. In 1872, President Grant appointed him a member of the territorial council of the District of Columba. During the campaign, preceding the second election of General Grant, as President, Frederick Douglass was a Presidential Elector, at large, for the State of New York. He was designated to carry the vote of New York State to Washington. In 1876, President Hayes appointed him United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. From 1881 to 1886, he was Recorder of Deeds of the District. In 1889, President Harrison appointed him United States Minister to the Republic of Haiti. He resigned that office in 1891. His death occurred on the evening of February 20th, 1895, at his home in Anacostia. His funeral was a most imposing event, and took place from Metropolitan A. M. E. Church on the 20th of February.

In connection with his death, an incident worthy of note was the adjournment of the North Carolina State Legislature out of respect to his demise, when the news of the same reached that body. At that time, the Republicans were in control in that state. But a few days before, the same body had refused to "adjourn out of respect to the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. The matter of adjournment, with respect to the death of Frederick Douglass, was an occasion for debate, and was carried by a strict party vote.

His Last Address to a Baltimore Audience

The Sixth Annual Commencement of the Colored High School, of Baltimore, took place in the Academy of Music, on Friday evening, June 22, 1894. There were eleven members of the graduating class, and the Honorable Ferdinand C. Latrobe, Mayor of Baltimore, delivered the diplomas. Mr. Douglass was the orator of the evening. This was his last public address in the city of his early childhood. Among other things, on that memorable occasion, he said in part:

"The Colored People of this country have, I think, made a great mistake of late in saying so much of race and color; as a basis of their claims to justice, and as the chief motive of their efforts and action. I have always attached more; importance to manhood than to mere identity with any variety of the human family. Since emancipation we hear much from our modern colored leaders about race pride, race love, and race effort, race superiority, race men and the like. One is praised for being a race man, and another is condemned for not being a race man. The object is good, but the method is bad. It is an effort to cast out Satan by Beelzebub. The evils that are now crushing us to earth have their root and sap in this narrow spirit of race and color, and we have no more right to foster it than men of any other race. I recognize and adopt no such narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings, or my motives of action. It was not the race or the color of the Negro that won for him the battle of liberty. That great battle was won, not because the victim of slavery was a Negro, but because the Negro is, and of right ought to be, a man a brother to all other men, a child of the common Father of mankind, and, therefore, to be recognized as a subject of government, and entitled to justice, liberty and equality before the law, to education and to an equal chance with all other men in the race of life and in the pursuit of happiness.

"Hence, at the risk of being deficient in the quality of love and loyalty to race and color, I have in my advocacy of our case, had more to say of manhood, and what is comprehended in manhood, than of the accident of race and color.

"We should never forget that the ablest and most eloquent voices ever raised in behalf of the black man's cause were the voices of white men. Not for race, not for color, but for man and for manhood they labored, fought, and died. Away, then, with the nonsense that a man must be black to be true to the rights of black men.

"A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing but the want of learning is a calamity to any people, and to no people more than to the Colored People of this country, Ignorance for us means poverty, and poverty means degradation, and degradation brings contempt and persecution. There is no time in our history that I would prefer to the present. The existence of this High School in the city of Baltimore is a triumphant rebuke to any cry of despair. It is a type of institution in nearly all of the Southern States, and which are multiplying all over the country. But, it is said that we are now being greatly persecuted. I admit it. Attempts are being made to set aside the amendments of the Constitution, to wrest from us the elective franchise, to exclude us from respectable railroad cars, to draw the color line against us in religious organizations, and to make us a proscribed class. The resistance we now meet is the proof of our progress.

"The resistance is not to the colored man as a slave, a servant or menial. It is aimed at the Negro as a man, a gentleman and a scholar. The Negro in ignorance and in rags, meets no resistance. He is rather liked. He is thought to be in his place. It is only when he acquires education, property and influence, only when he attempts to rise and be a man among men that he invites repression.

Even in the laws of the South, excluding him from railroad cars and other places, care is taken to allow him to ride as a servant, a valet or porter.

"It is not the Negro but the quality in which he comes which makes him an offense or otherwise. In one quality he is smiled upon as a very serviceable animal. In the other he is scorned as an upstart, entirely out of his place, and is made to take a back seat. I am not much disturbed by this, for the same resistance in kind, though not in degree, is met by white men who rise from lowly conditions. The successful and opulent esteem them as upstarts. A lad}', elegant and opulent, as Mrs. Potter Palmer, had to hear herself talked about as 'shoddy,' 'an upstart,' the wife of a 'tavern keeper,' and the like, during the Columbian Exposition. But the upstart of today is the elite of to-morrow."

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.

 

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