And who doesn't like a good story about a great person?
I firmly believe that if we don't remember the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that past generations did.
A man by the name of Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895. Our country could use him today.
On February 1, someone in high office said something that seemed to imply that Douglass was still alive. His descendants decided to turn that into a teachable moment.
It is my pleasure to introduce you, my reader (knowing that some of you are not from the United States) to this most remarkable man who had many ties with my native New York State.
Frederick Douglass never knew his exact birth date. He was born into slavery in Maryland sometime during February of 1818. His original name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He barely knew his mother, whom he was separated from at an early age (not uncommon with slaves in that area) and was raised by his grandmother. His birth mother died when Douglass was 10.
At around the age of 12, the young Douglass was hired out to a man living in Baltimore, Hugh Auld, brother of Douglass's owner Thomas Auld. Hugh Auld and his wife were not experienced slave keepers, which may explain what happened next.
Hugh Auld's wife started to teach Douglass the alphabet. I can not emphasize here the importance of this act - slaves were not permitted literacy, and in many places, teaching a slave to read or write was a crime. Any slave, in turn, who was literate had to hide that fact or risk heavy punishment or even death.
Imagine that your love of reading must be kept secret, as you have no right to be literate.
Soon enough, Hugh Auld convinced his wife that teaching Douglass was a mistake. But it was too late. In secret, Douglass taught himself to read and write, using various resources, including a school primer owned by Hugh Auld's son, and the Bible. Later, as a teenager, he was hired out to another man and started an underground slave school for the other neighborhood slaves. He was caught and brutally punished by being hired out to a known "slave breaker". Almost psychologically broken, he still managed to survive the experience.
Eventually, in 1838, Douglass was able to escape to the free state of Pennsylvania and then onward to free New York City. He married (he and his first wife were together for 44 years) and they settled in Massachusetts, another free state.
Douglass eventually took the last name of "Douglass" from a poem, The Lady of the Lake, by Walter Scott. While still living in Massachusetts, he joined the abolitionist movement - a movement to abolish slavery. By the early 1840's, Douglass was traveling frequently and giving the most eloquent speeches many had ever heard.
Some people didn't even believe he had ever been a slave, so Douglass decided to write the first of several autobiographies to educate the public about his origins and early life story. This book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (published in 1845), is in the public domain here and in most countries. If you look online, and it is legal, you will find PDFs of it on many websites. It is about 108 pages.
Keep in mind that Douglass, at this point, is still an escaped slave. It was quite possible his owner, Thomas Auld, could hire people to capture him and bring him back to slavery. After all, he was Auld's property. So, also in 1845, just as the Irish Potato Famine was starting, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Britain, and spent the next two years there. There are several historical plaques in Britain and Ireland commemorating that visit. More importantly, British supporters raised enough money and Douglass was able to purchase his freedom from Thomas Auld.
Returning to the United States in 1845, he began his association with upstate New York, particularly the upstate New York cities of Seneca Falls and Rochester. If you are interested in learning more about Douglass, many of his other writings are online, free to read. Or, you can watch a 44 minute "living history" depiction of Douglass produced by a Virginia TV station.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), three of Douglass's sons served in the military. One became a First Sargent and anther a Sargent-Major. The third was a recruiter.
Douglass fought for many causes, including improving the lot of the nation's former slaves (they were all freed after the Civil War), education, and women's right to vote. He used words, not violence, to advance the causes he believed in. I must also point out that his beliefs were sometimes complicated, and contradictory.
Douglass believed in the young art of photography, and was the most photographed man, it is said, of the 19th century.
Politically, Douglass was the first African American to be nominated for Vice-President (he did not support this, and did not campaign) and the first African American man to receive a vote for President.
In addition to his work in the abolitionist movement, Douglass also did much work in the women's suffrage movement. If you are a woman in the United States, you owe much to Frederick Douglass.
Here is another part of this amazing life story: In 1877, knowing his former owner Thomas Auld was dying, Frederick Douglass traveled to Auld's side and they reconciled. I don't know if I could ever have done that if I had been a former slave. Could you have?
Douglass lived for about 25 years in Rochester, New York, also the home of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Near Anthony's home is a small park, and there, you will find this statue, called "Let's Have Tea". Here, Anthony and Douglass's statues...well, they have tea. A black former slave and a white school teacher having tea as equals? That, in itself, would have been a revolutionary act.
Douglass died on February 20, 1895, in Washington, DC, shortly after visiting a meeting of the National Council of Women, and receiving the last standing ovation of his life.
|Mural of the Douglass-Anthony Bridge, Trader Joes, Pittsford, New York|
Although our nation's leader may have incorrectly implied that Douglass was still alive, he was right in one respect. The vision of Frederick Douglass is alive. His courage in learning to read and escaping slavery still inspires us. His supporting the rights of minorities and the rights of women continue to be carried forward by those who still believe in his vision. He taught that protest must always be peaceful, and that we must never give up when protesting for a just cause.
Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of Douglass's unknown birthday - and we can even hope that our President will wholeheartedly join in.
Come to think of it - yes, in a way, maybe Frederick Douglass is still alive - in all of us.