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Frederick Douglass

Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight
16-minute read
Audio available
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Frederick Douglass (2018) chronicles the life story of one of America’s most influential orators and statesmen. After a daring escape from slavery, Douglass soon found himself crisscrossing America, sharing his story with captivated audiences. This quickly led to a life in journalism and politics, and a crucial role in Abraham Lincoln’s creation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass’s dream of equality in America continues to be highly relevant and inspiring over a century after his death.

  • People interested in the American civil rights movement
  • Students of US history and politics
  • Social activists looking for inspiration

David W. Blight is a renowned American historian and an esteemed professor of American History at Yale University. He is also the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. His previous books include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), and Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (2001), for which he served as editor.

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Frederick Douglass

Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Synopsis

Frederick Douglass (2018) chronicles the life story of one of America’s most influential orators and statesmen. After a daring escape from slavery, Douglass soon found himself crisscrossing America, sharing his story with captivated audiences. This quickly led to a life in journalism and politics, and a crucial role in Abraham Lincoln’s creation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass’s dream of equality in America continues to be highly relevant and inspiring over a century after his death.

Key idea 1 of 10

Frederick Douglass moved to the city of Baltimore before escaping slavery.

The remarkable life of Frederick Douglass began on a Maryland farm, where he was born in February of 1818. The fact that his mother was a young slave working on the farm meant Douglass was born a slave as well. And since it was commonplace for slaves to be raped by their masters, Douglass's owner may well have been his father, although this is not certain.

Tragically, it was also common for mothers and their children to be separated, and when Douglass was just six years old, he was taken from his mother to work for his owner’s son-in-law, Thomas Auld.

Douglass moved again when he was eight years old, this time along with the Auld family as they relocated to the city of Baltimore, Maryland. This was an extremely fortunate move, since, as Douglass recognized, city slaves were treated almost like freemen compared to the inhuman hardships inflicted upon slaves in the countryside.

It was also fortunate that Sophia Auld, the sister-in-law of Thomas Auld, decided to raise Douglass as if he were one of her own children. This included lessons in reading and writing, at which he proved quite adept.

These lessons stopped once Thomas found out about them, but by then Douglass was literate enough to continue his own education. He secretly even paid local white vagrants for reading lessons, using bread as currency.

Baltimore was a special city, since, in addition to its 3,000 slaves, it also had 17,000 free black people, and this population left a lasting and transformative impression on Douglass.

For example, Douglass was able to get his hands on anti-slavery newspapers, which led him to learn the word “abolition” when he was still in his early teens. He also learned about the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia, which resulted in the execution of Nat Turner, the leader of the rebellion. When this shocking news reached Douglass, he began to understand that resistance and liberation were possible.

Douglass’s own liberation began to take shape when he met Anna Murray, the free black woman who would one day be his wife. Together, they crafted a plan to free Douglas from servitude.

The plan was executed in August of 1838, when the 20-year-old Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and boarded three different trains and three different boats, finally arriving in New York City. It took less than a day, and though he was now a fugitive, he was also a free man – free to marry Anna Murray and move with her to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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