Defining Race, Democracy, and Freedom: Fredrick Douglass born 14 Feb. 1818

journey from captive slave to internationally renowned activist, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) has been a source of inspiration and hope for millions. His brilliant words and brave actions continue to shape the ways that we think about race, democracy, and the meaning of freedom. Douglass fought tirelessly for the rights of others all his long life.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on approximately February 14, 1818. [He did not know the exact date, but according to the Library of Congress, he celebrated his birthday on February 14 in memory of his mother, who had brought him a heart-shaped cake on the night that he last saw her

The son of a slave woman and an unknown white man, “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” was born in February of 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. He spent his early years with his grandparents and with an aunt, seeing his mother only four or five times before her death when he was seven. (All Douglass knew of his father was that he was white.) During this time he was exposed to the degradations of slavery, witnessing firsthand brutal whippings and spending much time cold and hungry. When he was eight he was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. There he learned to read and first heard the words abolition and abolitionists. “Going to live at Baltimore,” Douglass would later say, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

Douglass spent seven relatively comfortable years in Baltimore before being sent back to the country, where he was hired out to a farm run by a notoriously brutal “slavebreaker” named Edward Covey. And the treatment he received was indeed brutal. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.”

On January 1, 1836, Douglass made a resolution that he would be free by the end of the year. He planned an escape. But early in April he was jailed after his plan was discovered. Two years later, while living in Baltimore and working at a shipyard, Douglass would finally realize his dream: he fled the city on September 3, 1838. Travelling by train, then steamboat, then train, he arrived in New York City the following day. Several weeks later he had settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name, Frederick Douglass.

Always striving to educate himself, Douglass continued his reading. He joined various organizations in New Bedford, including a black church. He attended Abolitionists’ meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal, the Liberator. In 1841, he saw Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society’s annual meeting. Douglass was inspired by the speaker, later stating, “no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” Garrison, too, was impressed with Douglass, mentioning him in the Liberator. Several days later Douglass gave his speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket– the speech described at the top of this page. Of the speech, one correspondent reported, “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence.” Before leaving the island, Douglass was asked to become a lecturer for the Society for three years. It was the launch of a career that would continue throughout Douglass’ long life.

Despite apprehensions that the information might endanger his freedom, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself. The year was 1845. Three years later, after a speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a four-page weekly, out of Rochester, New York.

Ever since he first met Garrison in 1841, the white abolitionist leader had been Douglass’ mentor. But the views of Garrison and Douglass ultimately diverged. Garrison represented the radical end of the abolitionist spectrum. He denounced churches, political parties, even voting. He believed in the dissolution (break up) of the Union. He also believed that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document. After his tour of Europe and the establishment of his paper, Douglass’ views began to change; he was becoming more of an independent thinker, more pragmatic. In 1851 Douglass announced at a meeting in Syracuse, New York, that he did not assume the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, and that it could even “be wielded in behalf of emancipation,” especially where the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction. Douglass also did not advocate the dissolution of the Union, since it would isolate slaves in the

The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.

The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.

I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men

There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution c

A gentleman will not insult me, and no man not a gentleman can insult me.

Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.

+ Without a struggle, there can be no progress.

+ The soul that is within me no man can degrade.


The Chambers Brothers , People Get Ready
Tracy Chapman , Talkin’ Bout a Revolution
Johnny Cash , I Won’t Back Down
Quincy Jones; Valerie Simpson , What’s Going On?
Deerhoof , Freedom Highway (The Staple Singers)
Queen , I Want To Break Free – Remastered 2011
Gerry & The Pacemakers , You’ll Never Walk Alone
Johnny Nash , I Can See Clearly Now – Edit
Gil Scott-Heron , The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Ben Harper , How Many Miles Must We March
Martin Jondo , Rainbow Warrior
Donavon Frankenreiter , Free
Bob Marley & The Wailers , Get Up, Stand Up
The Melodians , Rivers of Babylon – Long Version
Jimmy Cliff , The Harder They Come
Nina Simone , Revolution (Pts. 1 and 2)
Oscar Peterson Trio , Hymn To Freedom
Sarah McLachlan , Blackbird
Stevie Wonder , Redemption Song – From “Get On The Bus” Soundtrack
Eric Bibb , Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down
Sly & The Family Stone , You Can Make It If You Try
Ziggy Marley , We Are the People
Bob Marley & The Wailers , Stir It Up – Original Album Version
Peter Tosh , (You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back – 2002 Remaster
The Specials , Stand Up
Allen Toussaint , Yes We Can Can
Odetta , The Times They Are A-Changin’

Any Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s