Douglass, Frederick

Douglass, Frederick dŭg´ləs [key], c.1818–1895, American abolitionist, b. near Easton, Md. as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. The son of a black slave, Harriet Bailey, and a white father, most likely his mother's owner, he reinvented himself by taking the name of Douglass (from Scott's hero in The Lady of the Lake) after his successful second attempt to escape from slavery in 1838. At New Bedford, Mass., he found work as a day laborer. A staunch abolitionist, he maintained that there could be no compromise with slavery. He had begun speaking at a local black church, and an extemporaneous 1841 speech before a meeting of the Nantucket Anti-Slavery Society established him as a superb orator in the abolitionist cause. Fearing capture as a fugitive slave, he spent two years in England and Ireland, returning in 1847 after English friends had purchased (1846) his freedom.

Douglass, who had learned to read and write while still a slave, published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, the first of three autobiographies; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), was a fuller version of the first book, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) described his later life as a statesman and man of letters. Douglass spent some 15 years traveling by train, advocating abolition in speeches throughout the country, and soon became one of its most famous spokesmen. At Rochester, N.Y., he established (1847) the North Star anti-slavery weekly (later retitled Frederick Douglass' Paper) and edited it for 17 years. Unlike William L. Garrison, he favored abolition through political action and thus became a follower of James G. Birney.

In the Civil War he helped organize two Massachusetts regiments of African Americans and urged other blacks to join the Union ranks. During Reconstruction he continued to urge civil rights for African Americans as a member of the Republican Party. He spoke out against Jim Crow laws and spent much of his time helping to establish black institutions such as colleges. He also served as secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission (1871), marshal (1877–81) and recorder of deeds (1881–86) for the District of Columbia, and minister to Haiti (1889–91).

See P. S. Foner, ed., Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (4 vol., 1950–55); biographies by B. T. Washington (1907), P. Foner (1964), B. Quarles (1968), A. Bontemps (1971), W. McFreely (1991), and D. W. Blight (2018); E. Fuller, A Star Pointed North (1946); J. Stauffer and Z. Trodd, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American (2015).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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