Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895: He Fought for Freedom and Equality for African-Americans
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I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about Frederick Douglass. He was born a slave, but later became one of America's greatest leaders. He was an activist, a writer, a powerful speaker and an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln.
Frederick Douglass suffered severe physical and mental abuse during his many years as a slave. He dreamed of one day learning to read and being free. He believed knowledge would lead the way to freedom. Douglass wrote several books about his life as a slave. In eighteen forty-five he wrote "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave." It became an immediate best seller and remains popular today.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born around eighteen eighteen in Tuckahoe, Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay. Many slaves lived on large farms owned by white people. Each plantation was like a small village owned by one family who lived in a large house on the property.
Frederick and his mother, Harriet Bailey, were slaves on a huge plantation owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd. Their slave owner was a white man named Captain Aaron Anthony. Frederick knew very little about his father, except that he was a white man. Many believed Captain Anthony was his father.
Frederick did not know his mother well. Harriet Bailey was sent to work on another plantation when Frederick was very young. She was able to visit him only a few times. She died when Frederick was about seven years old.
Frederick then lived with his grandparents, Betsey and Isaac Bailey. He said that his grandparents had a loving home and were respected by other slaves in the area. Because of this, he did not realize at first that someone owned him and the others---that they were slaves.
It was not unusual for African-American families to be separated, often never seeing each other again. Slaves were not treated as human beings. Slave owners bought and traded them as if they were animals or property. Frederick had to leave his grandparents' home when he was six years old. He later wrote about that day. He said being forced to leave was one of the most painful experiences in his life. He said he began to understand the evil and oppressive system of slavery.
In eighteen twenty-six, Frederick was sent to work for Hugh Auld, in Baltimore, Maryland. Mr. Auld's wife, Sophia, was very kind to Frederick. She treated him as if he were a member of her family. Mrs. Auld soon began to teach Frederick to read. Her husband became extremely angry and ordered her to stop immediately. Slaves were denied education. Mr. Auld said if slaves could read they would rebel and run away.
Sophia Auld stopped teaching Frederick to read. But he learned to read from white boys he met in the city. The boys also told Frederick he had the right to be free.
Mr. Auld sent Frederick to work for a poor farmer, Edward Covey, who beat him often. In eighteen thirty-six, Frederick made an attempt to escape. But he failed and was arrested. He was sent back to the home of Hugh and Sophia Auld home in Baltimore.
He met and fell in love with a free black woman named Anna Murray. Ms. Murray had a job cleaning other people's homes. She gave Frederick money to help him escape by getting on a train to New York City.
"My free life began on the third of September, eighteen thirty-eight. On the morning of the fourth of that month, I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man. For the moment the dreams of my youth and the hopes of my manhood where completely fulfilled. The bonds that held me to "old master" were broken. No man now had the right to call me his slave or try to control me."
When Frederick Bailey reached New York he changed his name to Frederick Douglass to hide his identity from slave capturers. Anna Murray joined him and they were married. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts and had five children.
Frederick Douglass became one of the most important leaders of the abolitionist movement to end slavery in the United States.
In eighteen forty-one, he attended the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Douglass was unexpectedly asked to give a speech to describe his experiences as a slave. He had not prepared a speech but he spoke to the huge gathering of people anyway. Most of the supporters were white. He spoke with great emotion in a deep and powerful voice. The crowd praised him.
After that speech, The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society asked Douglass to travel to cities throughout the North. He continued to tell about his cruel and oppressive life as a slave. He told how slave owners beat slaves everyday. How slaves were given very little food to eat. How they worked all day in the fields during dangerously hot weather. How they slept on cold floors and had very little clothing.
Many who heard his story challenged its truthfulness. They refused to believe that Frederick Douglass was ever a slave. Instead, they thought he was an educated man who created the entire story.
In eighteen forty-four, Douglass began writing his life's story. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave" was published the following year. He later published expanded versions of his book.
Frederick Douglass wrote his first book partly to prove that he had lived through the horrible situations he described in his speeches. He was asked to speak at the Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York in eighteen fifty-two. He noted the differences of how blacks and whites considered Independence Day.
"The purpose of this celebration is the Fourth of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom… This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may celebrate. I must mourn…What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him more than all other days in the year, the horrible discrimination and punishment to which he is the everyday victim…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States at this very hour."
In eighteen sixty-one the American Civil War began. Frederick Douglass and many others saw slavery as the cause of the war. Douglass wanted blacks to be permitted to join the Union Army. However, Northern whites, including President Abraham Lincoln, were against it. They said black soldiers would harm the spirit of white soldiers. They believed black soldiers were not intelligent.
Two years later, blacks were permitted to join the Union Army, but they were not treated as soldiers. Although they showed bravery they were given less important jobs. Douglass met with President Lincoln in Washington to discuss the issue. Douglass urge that black soldiers be treated equal to white soldiers. Although President Lincoln agreed, he said there could be no immediate change.
In eighteen sixty-five, the Civil War ended. The Union forces had defeated the South. A few months later President Lincoln was killed. And later that year, slavery was ended.
Frederick Douglass went on to hold several positions in the government, including United States Marshall of the District of Columbia. He never stopped his efforts to gain equality for all people. Historians say Douglass gave two thousand speeches and wrote thousands of articles and letters. His work as an activist also included women's rights. On February twentieth, eighteen ninety-five, he gave a speech at the National Council of Women. Later that day, he returned to his home in Washington and died of heart failure at the age of seventy-eight.
Frederick Douglass ended his "book My Bondage, My Freedom" with these words:
"I shall labor in the future as I have labored in the past, to work for the honorable, social, religious, and intellectual position of the free colored people; while Heaven lends me ability, to use my voice, my pen or my vote to support the great and most important work of the complete and unconditional freedom of my entire race."
This program was written and produced by Lawan Davis. The writings of Frederick Douglass were read by Shep O'Neal. You can download this program and others from our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.