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African American Men of History: Fredrick Douglas

Fredrick Douglas was born into slavery in 1817, in Tuckahoe, Maryland. With a determined mind and heart he knew that slavery was wrong.

Even though he knew it was illegal for a slave to learn to read and write, Fredrick Douglas mastered both. He knew his destiny lay beyond the plantation of his owner. He escaped when he was only 21 years-old.

He found his way to Massachusetts where he became a leading advocate in the abolition of slavery.

In his own autobiography, Fredrick Douglas speculates that his father was the plantation owner. It wasn’t uncommon for the slaveholders to have relations with the slaves, denying any children. Douglas was separated from his mother when he was very young. He saw her occasionally, but then only when sneaking under the cover of night.

Negro spirituals of the sorrows and pains of slavery were a part of young Douglas’s life, but so was the accompanying Christian hope that all men are created equal. He believed that someday there would be deliverance for his people, just as God had delivered the Hebrews from the Promised Land. Fredrick Douglas held tightly to the songs and his faith, finding in them the release he yearned for from the burdens of slavery.

Frederick Douglas worked in the fields, in the master’s house, and even as a ship carpenter.

At the age of twelve he was leased to his master’s relatives. It was in their home that he learned his ABC’s at the hand of the mistress. He would have learned more then, but her husband forbade her to help Douglas any more.

According to Frederick Douglas the mistress’s husband was wise, because the more he learned the more Douglas wanted freedom. He was known to carry books everywhere he went. Often, he would trade bread to the white boys along the way in exchange for a reading lesson. Fredrick Douglas was determined that he would not be hindered or restricted by what his master said he could and could not do.

He wanted freedom, not just for himself, but for all slaves.

Perhaps his master found out about Fredrick’s covert learning activities, or he could see the yearning for freedom in his eyes. For one reason or another he was leased to a man known as Mr. Covey. Douglas admits to being unmanageable when he was sent to Covey, but after six months of daily beatings Frederick settled down a bit while leased to Covey.

One day all of that changed. Covey came out to get Frederick Douglas with a whipping rope. Having taken all he could Fredrick wrested the rope from his hands and threw him to the ground. The two men fought, but when Covey saw that Frederick was not giving in he finally gave up.

Frederick determined that from that day forward if any man was to beat him he would have to kill him first. Frederick remained a slave, but something had been released in his spirit. It was something indomitable inside of him and it would continue to grow.

In 1838, following several failed attempts; Frederick Douglas escaped and joined his wife in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Frederick Douglas found that for which his heart had so long yearned – freedom. To him, it was a far richer thing than all the money of all the plantation owners put together.

From that day forward Frederick Douglas dedicated his life to abolition of slavery and freedom for all.

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