ARCC News – The Lesser-Known Legacy of Frederick Douglass

February 2023

At some point in grade school, millions of American students learn about the life and writings of Frederick Douglass, who became famous for his work as an abolitionist. This introduction often happens as part of Black History Month learning units. In fact, February was chosen as Black History Month because it’s the birth month of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Yet, the interests and accomplishments of the author best known for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave go well beyond the abolitionist movement.

Did you know, for example, that Douglass was born with his mother’s last name—Bailey—and that he and his wife took their new surname from a character in Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake? Douglass also had to choose his own estimated birthday, since, as he once wrote, “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”

Who Was Frederick Douglass?

Douglass is often and rightly recognized for his role in the abolitionist movement. He toured the US, Ireland, and Great Britain as part of his involvement with the American Anti-Slavery Society, speaking about his experiences as a slave. He worked to ensure that the American Civil War would result in the emancipation of slaves, and his values encompassed other important causes as well. Here are some other things you may not have known about the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass.

Literacy Advocate

Most slaves did not have many educational opportunities; in fact, after the slave revolt of 1831, it became illegal in most slave trade states to teach Black Americans to read or write. As a child, Douglass was somewhat fortunate that Mrs. Auld, in whose home he worked, began teaching him to read and write, since she was also teaching her own young son to do so. When her husband forbade her to continue these lessons, Douglass picked up informal components of literacy from the white boys he played with in the streets of Baltimore.

Once he had mastered reading and writing, he began teaching other slaves on these subjects as well. By the age of 16, Douglass was teaching as many as 40 people from other plantations. When Mr. Auld heard about this, he sold Douglass to a particularly cruel slave owner who took pride in trying to break Douglass’s body and spirit. It took 3 escape attempts for him to leave life as a slave behind.

Civil Rights Writer and Educator

His experiences as both hard-knocks student and slave taught Douglass the role of education in empowering Black Americans and other oppressed groups. He understood that enforced ignorance—both lack of education and isolation from the outside world—was a powerful tool for controlling slaves and freed people alike. Consequently, he worked to speak and publish as much as possible to combat this. He wrote 3 autobiographies, gave anti-slavery speeches across the country, and even published his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

All of these were methods of reaching the ears and minds of the largest possible audience in order to empower Black Americans. Even after Emancipation, Douglass shed light on the continuing injustices against freed slaves, teaching others that these were prevalent even in the North. In doing so, he was able to convey news, dispel myths and stereotypes, and educate countless minds about the need and means for racial equality.

Federal Statesman

After the Civil War, Douglass served in various roles with the US government. His federal career included positions as the president of Freedman’s Bank, a board member at Howard University, Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti, diplomat to the Dominican Republic, and more. Douglass was the first Black man in the US to hold such prestigious offices.

Women’s Rights Advocate

Douglass also worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to establish the American Equal Rights Association. This organization advocated for all oppressed groups, including women. He was the only African American at the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1848, where he shared his belief that women are born equal to men, writing that “no custom, law, or usage can ever destroy” this fact.

He also gave this speech in 1888 at the International Council of Women, importantly stating first that the women’s suffrage movement should be controlled by women’s voices alone, and that interested men should listen rather than trying to dominate the discourse. Douglass continued to advocate for women’s rights until his death in 1895.

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