Born near Easton, Md. the son of a black slave, Harriet Bailey, and an unknown white father, he took the name of Douglass (from Scott's hero in The Lady of the Lake) after his second, and successful, attempt to escape from slavery in 1838. At New Bedford, Mass., he found work as a day laborer. An extemporaneous speech before a meeting at Nantucket of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841 was so effective that he was made one of its agents. Douglass, who had learned to read and write while in the service of a kind mistress in Baltimore, published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. Fearing capture as a fugitive slave, he spent several years in England and Ireland and returned in 1847, after English friends had purchased his freedom. At Rochester, N.Y., he established the North Star and edited it for 17 years in the abolitionist cause. Unlike William H. Garrison, he favored the use of political methods and thus became a follower of James G. Birney. In the Civil War he helped organize two regiments of Massachusetts African Americans and urged other blacks to join the Union ranks. During Reconstruction he continued to urge civil rights for African Americans. He was secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission (1871), marshal of the District of Columbia (1877–81), recorder of deeds for the same district (1881–86), and minister to Haiti (1889–91). Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1962) is a revised edition of his autobiography, which has also been published as My Bondage and My Freedom.
See also biographies by Booker T. Washington (1907), Philip Foner (1964), Benjamin Quarles (1968), Arna Bontemps (1971), and William McFreely (1991); Edmund Fuller, A Star Pointed North (1946); P. S. Foner, ed., Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (4 vol., 1950–55).
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