Frederick Douglass (circa 1818-1895) – From Slavery to Freedom

Carte-de-visit portrait of Frederick Douglass, circa 1865.  ODHS #1951.20.1

Fiery orator, author, champion of abolition, women’s rights and a freedom fighter in the age of the Civil War, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a.k.a. Frederick Douglass was born the son of a slave woman and an unknown white man in Maryland around February 14, 1818. 

An exceptionally talented and intelligent person, he persevered in the face of disaster learning to read and write, itself a notable achievement for a black boy in the antebellum South. At the age of 20, disguised as a sailor with clothing provided by his laundress friend Anna Murray he fled the South by rail and steamboat arriving in New York in September of 1838. There he met up once again with Anna Murray (1813-1882), a free black woman from Baltimore who had greatly assisted him in both his education and escape from the South. The couple was married in New York. Shortly thereafter they left New York and landed in Newport, Rhode Island fortuitously met by two New Bedford Quakers, merchant Joseph Ricketson and book seller William C. Taber who, perceiving their situation, opened the door to the New Bedford stagecoach saying, “Thee get in.” Thus, Frederick and Anna came to New Bedford, at the time a significant destination for the Underground Railroad. While here that they adopted the last name “Douglass” and each began their lives as ardent abolitionists. While in New Bedford they stayed at the home of the free black Quaker couple Nathan (1797-1880) and Mary “Polly” Johnson (1784-1871) located at 21 Seventh Street. The site is today a United States National Historic Landmark. Douglass described their lodgings:

He lived in a nicer house, dined at a more ample board, was owner of more books, the reader of more newspapers, was more conversant with the moral, social and political conditions of the country and the world, than nine-tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot County [Maryland].

While in New Bedford, Douglass became acquainted with the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, edited by William Lloyd Garrison. He actually heard Garrison speak in New Bedford, listening to “his mighty words, mighty in truth.” The experience strengthened his resolve to work toward the “ultimate freedom of my race.” Soon thereafter Douglass heard Garrison speak again, this time on Nantucket Island, where Douglass was recruited as a spokesman for the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society. This is how began his career as one of the great orators of his time.