Our Namesake Frederick Douglass

Who was Frederick Douglass?

  • FD-Portrait-6 FD-Portrait-5 FD-Portrait-4 FD-Portrait-3 FD-Portrait-2 FD-Portrait-1

    Click here to enlarge photo album
  • Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in a slave cabin, in February, 1818, on the Eastern Shore in Talbot County, Maryland. Upon his escape from slavery at age 20, Douglass adopted a new surname from the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.

    The exact date of his birth is unknown, and he later chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14.

    Douglass was of mixed race, the son of a slave woman, and in all likelihood, her white master. He was separated from his mother when only a few weeks old he was raised by his grandparents.

Frederick Douglass was a prominent American abolitionist, author and orator. Douglass immortalized his years as a slave in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). This and two subsequent autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), mark his greatest contributions to American culture. Written as antislavery propaganda and personal revelation, they are regarded as the finest examples of the slave narrative tradition and as classics of American autobiography.

Douglass’ work as a reformer ranged from his abolitionist activities in the early 1840s to his attacks on Jim Crow and lynching in the 1890s. For 16 years he edited an influential black newspaper and achieved international fame as an inspiring and persuasive speaker and writer. In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, provided an indomitable voice of hope for his people, embraced antislavery politics and preached his own brand of American ideals.

Douglass welcomed the Civil War in 1861 as a moral crusade against slavery. During the war he labored as a propagandist of the Union cause and emancipation, a recruiter of black troops, and an adviser to President Lincoln. He viewed the Union victory as an apocalyptic rebirth of America as a nation rooted in a rewritten Constitution and the ideal of racial equality. Some of his hopes were dashed during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, but he continued to travel widely and lecture on racial issues, national politics, and women’s rights. In the 1870s Douglass moved to Washington, D.C.; where he edited a newspaper and became president of the ill-fated Freedman’s Bank. As a stalwart Republican, Douglass was appointed marshal (1877-1881) and recorder of deeds (1881-1886) for the District of Columbia, and chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti (1889-1891).

Douglass had five children with his first wife Anna. After Anna’s death he married Helen Pittas, a white feminist from New York. Douglass responded to the criticisms regarding his second marriage by saying that his first marriage had been to someone the color of his mother, and his second to someone the color of his father.

  • On February 20, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C.

    His funeral was held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church; thousands passed by his coffin to show their respect. Although Douglass had attended several churches in the nation’s capital, he had a pew here and donated two standing candelabras when this church had moved to a new building in 1886. He also gave many lectures there, including his last major speech, “The Lesson of the Hour.”

    Douglass’ coffin was transported back to Rochester, New York where he had lived for 25 years, longer than anywhere else in his life. He was buried in the Douglass family plot of Mount Hope Cemetery.

Brilliant, heroic, and complex, Douglass became a symbol of his age and a unique voice for humanism and social justice. His life and thought will always speak profoundly to the meaning of being black in America, as well as the human calling to resist oppression.

Links to Information on Frederick Douglass

  • Cedar Hill, Douglass’ house in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is preserved as a National Historic Site

  • From the archives: Rochester Honors the Memory of Fredrick Douglass

  • Frederick Douglass Circle, 110th Street and Eighth Avenue near Central Park, Manhattan

  • Frederick Douglass Isaac Myers Maritime Park, Baltimore, Maryland