Activist, writer and lecturer Frederick Douglass remains famous for his ability to elicit emotion in those who studied his works or heard him speak. But when the abolitionist died unexpectedly at the age of 78, he had no message of his own to leave behind. So, it fell to The New York Times to describe the life of this great man – and his obituary may still move you to this day.
And those tasked with remembering this historical icon had a wealth of material to wade through. After all, it would be an understatement to say that Douglass lived an incredible life. In 1838, for instance, he freed himself from slavery in Maryland and began a new life in Massachusetts. There, Douglass became an impassioned advocate for abolition, and fellow supporters of the cause lauded his intelligence and articulation.
Douglass went on to pen a number of autobiographies that would further the abolitionist cause, too. And even after slavery was officially outlawed in the United States in 1865, the social reformer continued to speak out against the practice. Douglass also championed additional causes that would make other marginalized groups free. For instance, he lent his voice to the women’s suffrage movement.
And this support of women became part of Douglass’ legacy as a man who viewed all people as equals, regardless of gender or race. The social reformer also became famous for his open communication as well as encouraging others to speak their truths – even if it meant reaching across the aisle. In an 1855 lecture, Douglass eloquently gave voice to this ideal, saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right – and with nobody to do wrong.”
But when Douglass came into the world – with the moniker of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey – as a slave on a Maryland plantation, it’s highly unlikely that anyone thought he would go on to rack up these achievements. No one knows the precise date or location of the Maryland native’s birth, although he elected February 14 as his birthday. And experts claim that Douglass was probably delivered in his grandmother’s home.
Douglass’ parentage was unclear, too. Of course, there was no doubt when it came to his mother’s identity: she was a slave called Harriet Bailey, who’s believed to have been of Native American and African descent. But her newborn son appeared to have a white father. And Douglass claimed rumors suggesting that Bailey’s owner had been the one to get her pregnant had swirled around the plantation.
In Douglass’ 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he heart-wrenchingly described some of his earliest memories. Namely, apparently he and his mother were separated very early on – a regular practice in the region where he grew up. And the former slave tragically wrote, “I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day.”
Fortunately, however, Douglass was able to stay with his grandparents until he was six years old, but then he was moved to another plantation. Yet in 1826 the young slave received a bolt from the blue. The plantation’s overseer passed away, you see, so Douglass became the property of Thomas and Lucretia Auld. He was subsequently dispatched to Thomas’ sibling, Hugh, and his wife, who both lived in Baltimore.
City living proved to be very different to life on the plantation. According to Douglass, in fact, slaves in Baltimore acted as if they were practically free – certainly when compared to those laboring on farms. And at the age of 12, he received an even greater gift. You see, Thomas’ spouse Sophia began to acquaint the young slave with the alphabet – a gesture that transformed Douglass’ life.
Eventually, though, Sophia’s lessons came to an end. Her husband deterred her from helping Douglass to become literate, as he apparently believed that it would stoke the young slave’s aspirations of freedom. And in Douglass’ autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he remembered this particular speech as the “first decidedly anti-slavery lecture” that he was subjected to.
But Douglass was undeterred, and he continued his studies as inconspicuously as possible. For instance, the slave turned to local white children to act as his teachers. He paid close attention to the literary materials produced by the men whom he toiled alongside, too. In time, Douglass was able to understand pamphlets, newspapers, political leaflets and books. And by scrutinizing this literature, Douglass began to codify his beliefs about equality and freedom.
In time, Douglass ended up back on a plantation, and he decided to share his knowledge with his peers. The slaves gathered each Sunday to learn how to read the Bible’s New Testament – under Douglass’ direction, of course. And the sessions proved so popular that his class size quickly swelled to over 40 pupils.
Yet while Douglass’ master, William Freeland, wasn’t averse to these lessons, other owners whose slaves attended the classes began to complain about their charges’ unwanted education. And this ill-feeling culminated in an attack on the Sunday school, when the incensed slave owners burst into the building wielding rocks and clubs – thereby shutting down the operation once and for all.
But worryingly, the worst was yet to come for Douglass. After the Maryland native’s failed stint on Freeland’s farm, you see, the Auld family shipped him off to a new plantation. And the man in charge – Edward Covey – had a fearsome reputation for dealing with troublemaking slaves. Unfortunately, Douglass attracted the slave-handler’s attention: Covey apparently flogged the then-sixteen-year-old so frequently that his body didn’t have enough time to recover between beatings.
But Douglass had already proved once that he wouldn’t buckle in the face of adversity. Instead, the young slave stood up for himself and overpowered Covey in a brawl. And after this incident, the farmer reportedly never went to strike Douglass again. It seems that the slave viewed this interaction as a turning point, as he wrote in his autobiography, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
Of course, long before Douglass served both Covey and Freeland, he had yearned to become free. And the young slave had attempted – and failed – to escape while laboring under both masters. But staying in Maryland meant that Douglass crossed paths with the love of his life, Anna Murray, who lived in the city of Baltimore as a free woman.
And meeting Murray apparently empowered Douglass more than ever before: she proved that freedom was achievable. His new beau additionally supplied him with the materials and funds that he needed to make his final escape attempt in 1838. For instance, she gave him a sailor’s uniform to wear when he got on a train that was bound toward his final destination: New York City.
What’s more, Douglass carried with him official documents that identified him as both a sailor and a free man, thereby theoretically concealing his status as a slave. Murray had also forked out for his travel expenses. But she would simply have to wait to hear if her lover had successfully reached New York City – where he’d no longer have to answer to a master.
So, Douglass got on the train in Baltimore without incident and traveled north into Delaware. The runaway then boarded a ferry that brought him to the next section of railroad tracks. Douglass had to be careful when passing through Delaware, though, as the state allowed slavery. But the Maryland native’s careful planning proved successful, as he reached Philadelphia – a city that was opposed to slavery.
And from the City of Brotherly Love, Douglass traveled onward to a safe house in New York City – thus successfully capping off his journey to freedom. The former slave described what his arrival felt like in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, writing, “There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me.”
Douglass continued, “I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe.” And his bliss undoubtedly grew even more, as shortly after he reached New York, Murray moved there to be with him. Happily, the lovers got married less than two weeks after he had escaped from slavery.
After Douglass and Mary had tied the knot, the newlyweds moved again, heading north west to New Bedford, Massachusetts – an abolitionist community that many other ex-slaves also called home. And the couple chose to adopt the last name of Johnson to try and avoid attracting any unwanted attention. But when they realized how many others in New Bedford had the same surname, they altered theirs once again – to Douglass.
Once Douglass was safely in New Bedford, he began to work on his speech-giving abilities in earnest. Firstly, he gained his credentials as a preacher in 1839, and this role gave him plenty of practice in public speaking. But the former slave was unable to fully master his nerves – until others encouraged him to give anti-slavery lectures, that is. Yes, in recounting his own story, Douglass’ confidence grew in leaps and bounds.
Soon enough, Douglass found a way to share that tale with an even wider audience. Yes, in 1845 he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. And while some apparently wondered if a man of color could have penned such an elegant piece of work, Douglass’ literary effort garnered mostly glowing appraisals. Not only did the book become a bestseller, but it was also translated into a number of European languages.
Two years later, Douglass took up the pen once more. This time, he founded the North Star newspaper. And its motto encapsulated Douglass’ views on the country at the time, reading, ”Right is of no sex – Truth is of no color – God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
These ideals were put into practice years later. When the northern states finally fought against the southerners to end slavery, you see, Douglass lobbied alongside other abolitionists for the inclusion of black soldiers in the Union’s forces. After all, according to him, they should have the right to take up arms for their liberty. And the Union ultimately triumphed: slavery was officially outlawed on January 1, 1863.
The end of the Civil War – and the end of slavery – didn’t mean that Douglass’ work was done, however – far from it. In fact, he spent the rest of his life campaigning for equality and threw his weight behind the burgeoning suffrage movement. Douglass held political positions, too, even becoming the first black American to be considered for Vice President.
Douglass spent his twilight years in Washington, D.C., where he and Murray purchased a property of their own called Cedar Hill. And when the abolitionist’s beloved wife – with whom he shared five children – passed away in 1882, he was left bereft. But Douglass remarried a Caucasian activist named Helen Pitts just two years later. The union reportedly proved incendiary, though, apparently owing to the fact that she was almost two decades his junior and of a different race.
Yet a handful of years before Douglass’ first wife had passed away, he had gotten the chance to gain closure about a troubling aspect of his childhood. You see, in 1877 Thomas Auld – who once owned the young Douglass – was on his deathbed. So the abolitionist duly visited his former master, and the two men were able to settle their differences.
Two decades later, though, it would be Douglass’ turn to say goodbye. But as his 1895 obituary in The New York Times reveals, he tragically didn’t get the chance to say a grand farewell to anyone. You see, on February 20 of that year, Douglass went to a meeting for women’s suffrage, and the attendees duly got to their feet in appreciation.
Yet when he reached his home, tragedy soon struck. Yes, according to the obituary, “Douglass dropped dead in the hallway of his residence… He had been in the highest spirits, and apparently in the best of health, despite his seventy-eight years, when death overtook him.” And experts subsequently determined that the abolitionist had suffered a severe heart attack.
Apparently, though, Pitts didn’t realize at first that her husband was battling a serious health issue. In fact, according to the obituary, ‘[Douglass] fell upon his knees with hands clasped. Mrs. Douglass, thinking this was part of his description [of that day’s events], was not alarmed, but as she looked he sank lower and lower, and finally lay stretched upon the floor, breathing his last.”
Yet although Pitts ran to the porch of her and Douglass’ home and begged for assistance, sadly nothing could be done for her husband. And according to the obituary, the abolitionist died “seemingly without pain.” What’s more, Douglass had lived in pursuit of egalitarianism until the very end. “The very last hours of his life were given in attention to one of the principles to which he has devoted his energies since his escape from slavery,” the obituary continues.
At the meeting, Douglass apparently hadn’t acted out of character, either. He had sat next to Susan B. Anthony – his close friend and a famous women’s suffragist. But the abolitionist did seem to be experiencing numbness in one of his extremities, as the obituary states that he kept massaging his left hand.
The obituary shares Anthony’s reaction to the news that Douglass had suddenly passed away, too, stating, “She was very much affected. Miss Anthony has a wonderful control over her feelings, but tonight she could not conceal her emotion.” Instead, the then-75-year-old had announced that she would visit Douglass’ residence that night, but those around her protested against the septuagenarian taking such a trip before daylight.
Of course, Douglass’ obituary doesn’t just describe the manner of his death: it also highlights the abolitionist’s incredible life. And rather whimsically, it states, “Mr. Douglass’ life from first to last was filled with incidents that gave to it a keen flavor of romance.” The abolitionist had traveled to Europe to help further the civil rights movement, for instance, and acted as the Minister to Haiti for two years.
The obituary also notes that Douglass was “one of the most distinguished-looking men that appeared on the thoroughfares of the capital.” And according to the piece, his demeanor matched his looks. The obituary reads, “He was kindly disposed to all, courteous, and of gentle bearing, and by all alike, white and black, or of whatever creed, religion, or race, the news of his death will meet only with genuine regret.”
But perhaps the most touching inclusion in Douglass’ obituary are words of his own creation. You see, the piece’s authors included a speech that the abolitionist gave at a school for black children in 1893. He told the story of a young man, born a slave, “whose mother and father died when he was but six years old,” leaving him to fend for himself.
Douglass then went on to tell the children how that slave boy had become literate on his own. Then, the young man had tried his hand at public speaking and even politics. He earned money, Douglass told them, and “didn’t have to divide crumbs with the dogs under the table.” The abolitionist then revealed, of course, that the man he spoke of was himself.
And with that, Douglass concluded his speech with the same powerful words that finish his touching obituary – and perhaps even sum up his legacy, too. He said, “What was possible for me is possible for you… Strive earnestly to add to your knowledge. So long as you remain in ignorance, so long will you fail to command the respect of your fellow men.”