Douglass, Frederick

Frederick Douglass, (1818?-1895), was the leading spokesman of African Americans in the 1800's. Born a slave, Douglass became a noted reformer, author, and orator. He devoted his life to the abolition of slavery and the fight for black rights.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in Tuckahoe, Md., near Easton. At the age of 8, he was sent to Baltimore to work for one of his master's relatives. There, helped by the wife of his new master, he began to educate himself. He later worked in a shipyard, where he caulked ships, making them watertight.

In 1838, the young man fled from his master and went to New Bedford, Mass. To avoid capture, he dropped his two middle names and changed his last name to Douglass. He got a job as a caulker, but the other men refused to work with him because he was black. Douglass then held a number of unskilled jobs, among them collecting rubbish and digging cellars.

In 1841, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, Douglass told what freedom meant to him. The society was so impressed with his speech that it hired him to lecture about his experiences as a slave. In the early 1840's, he protested against segregated seating on trains by sitting in cars reserved for whites. He had to be dragged from the white cars. Douglass also protested against religious discrimination. He walked out of a church that kept blacks from taking part in a service until the whites had finished participating.

In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He feared that his identity as a runaway slave would be revealed when the book was published, so he went to England. There, Douglass continued to speak against slavery. He also found friends who raised money to buy his freedom.

Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and founded an antislavery newspaper, the North Star, in Rochester, N.Y. In the 1850's, Douglass charged that employers hired white immigrants ahead of black Americans. He once declared: "Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place." He accused even some abolitionist business executives of job discrimination against blacks.

Douglass also led a successful attack against segregated schools in Rochester. His home was a station on the underground railroad, a widespread system which helped runaway slaves reach freedom.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), Douglass helped recruit African Americans for the Union Army. He discussed the problems of slavery with President Abraham Lincoln several times. Douglass served as recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia from 1881 to 1886 and as U.S. minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. He wrote two expanded versions of his autobiography--My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).