February 20, 2016
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey chose his own birthday as February 14th, because like most slaves, he did not know the exact day. In fact, he wasn’t even sure of the year but guessed 1817. Separated from his mother as a toddler, Frederick was raised by his grandmother until around age 10. At that time, he was sent to work for his master’s relative, Hugh Auld, where the matriarch of the house, Sophia, began illegally teaching him the alphabet. Hugh reprimanded Sophia for her actions, but to his dismay, she continued to teach Frederick to read using the Bible. Eventually Hugh pressured her enough to convince her slavery and schooling did not mix. She stopped her teaching but Frederick did not stop his learning. He already realized how important reading and writing were to freedom. Continuing to find ways to learn, he often gave up his lunch to the local white children in exchange for lessons.
As his own knowledge grew, Frederick began holding Sunday services, teaching other plantation slaves to read using the New Testament. He was educating and converting many souls until a group of slave owners burst in one Sunday with clubs and permanently disbanded the congregation.
Around age 20, Frederick met a free black woman from Baltimore, Anna Murray, who helped him escape to New York. Anna followed him a few days later and they quickly married on September 15, 1838. The couple used the last name Johnson to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to the escaped slave. After settling in the free black community of New Bedford, Massachusetts, they selected Douglass as their permanent surname.
Frederick Douglass became a licensed preacher, while immersing himself in the anti-slavery movement. He started gaining widespread recognition in 1845 after he published his first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Despite skepticism that a Negro could compose such an amazing literary work, the book became an immediate best seller not only in America, but in Europe as well. During a tour of Europe, supporters raised enough money for Douglass to officially buy his freedom, which he did.
Upon returning from Europe, Douglass began producing The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper with the motto "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” This publication did for Douglass what the Montgomery Bus Boycott did for Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era 100 years later. (see ) He exploded on the national scene as one of the first notable black abolitionists.
Originally subscribing to the position that the was pro-slavery, Douglass’ opinion changed after reading Lysander Spooner’s The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (1846). Instead of fighting against the , Douglass began fighting with the , a position that did not sit well with some other abolitionists.
Douglass was not just for black’s rights, but for women’s rights as well. Before the Civil War, he won over many hearts to the women's suffrage movement declaring it would not be just fighting for the Negro's right to vote without demanding that same liberty for women. After the war, Douglass’ support of the brought criticism as it only addressed black’s rights. (see ) Douglass realized getting the Amendment passed would be difficult enough as is. Attaching women’s suffrage would surely kill the Amendment. He argued white women had some voice through their fathers, husbands, and sons. The Amendment would give black men the vote and, as with white women, black women would have a voice they never had before. He realized that this was going to be a long fight and it was better to take a little victory and keep fighting the war than to lose all by demanding everything. (see )
As a result of Douglass’ work on minority rights, as well as his literary accomplishments, his views on blacks fighting in the Civil War were crucial to the cause. Not wanting to split Northern support for the war, Lincoln was hesitant to grant emancipation of the slaves. Douglass pushed Lincoln through his writings, which were quite critical at times, until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. (see ) Included in the proclamation was the approval of blacks enlisting in the Union Army and Navy. Douglass, along with other prominent black abolitionists, such as Harriet Tubman, Hiram Rhoades Revels, John S. Rock, and Sojourner Truth, participated in recruiting men for black units. (see , , , and ) The first official black unit, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, included Truth's grandson, James Caldwell, and two of Douglass' sons, Charles and Lewis. (see )
Instead of taking offense at Douglass and his criticisms, Lincoln became the first president to invite a Negro to the White House. Though Douglass was distraught over Lincoln’s sluggish progress, he again decided to stop working against Lincoln, and started working with Lincoln. He accepted the invitation. In their meeting, Lincoln confessed, “Douglass, I hate slavery as much as you do, and I want to see it abolished altogether.” (see )
Despite Douglass’ criticisms, he and Lincoln developed a strong friendship, allowing Douglass to meet the President at the White House on several occasions. During one visit, Governor Buckingham of Connecticut arrived. Douglass recounted the event saying, "While in conversation with him [Lincoln], his secretary twice announced Governor Buckingham of Connecticut, one of the noblest and most patriotic of the loyal governors. Mr. Lincoln said: Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend, Frederick Douglass. I interposed and begged him to see the governor at once, as I could wait, but no, he persisted that he wanted to talk with me and that Governor Buckingham could wait.” In an unprecedented move, Lincoln made a white Governor wait while he conversed with a black man. It did not go unnoticed. Douglass continued, “This was probably the first time in the history of this Republic when its chief magistrate found occasion or disposition to exercise such an act of impartiality between persons so widely different in their positions and supposed claims upon his attention. From the manner of the governor, when he was finally admitted, I inferred that he was as well satisfied with what Mr. Lincoln had done, or had omitted to do, as I was.” He concluded with, “In his (Lincoln’s) company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular colour.”
At Lincoln’s funeral, though not officially scheduled to speak, attendees insisted the profound civil rights leader address the crowd. A friend described Douglass’ remarks by saying, “I never heard truer eloquence; I never saw profounder impression. When he finished the meeting was done.” Acknowledging their strong bond, Mary Lincoln sent Douglass her husband’s favorite walking staff. In his thank you note, he pledged to always possess it, calling it an “object of sacred interest” and praised Lincoln for his "humane interest in the welfare of my whole race." Douglass pronounced Lincoln America’s “greatest President” in his last autobiography.
Douglass obtained many historical political advances over the next several decades. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes designated Douglass a United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, becoming the first black citizen to obtain a high U.S. government rank. In an attempt to bring abolitionists and women’s suffrage advocates back together, the Equal Rights Party nominated Douglass as VP to Victoria Woodhull’s Presidential bid in 1874. Even though it was done without Douglass’ awareness or approval, it was monumental historically as it denoted the first black on a presidential ballot.
Douglass strongly professed, “I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.” And Republicans loved him back. During the 1888 Republican National Convention, less than 25 years after the Civil War, Douglass received one vote for President of the United States. It was the first roll call vote ever to be cast for a black man in America and a major victory for the black population.
From his first tastes of the written word, Douglass believed, "knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” He understood education was critical for blacks to better their lives. This makes me question: if Douglass were alive today would he be supporting the curriculum of Global Warming (see and ), gay marriage ( and , abortion (see ), safe spaces (see ), socialism (see ) and Black Lives Matter (see ) or would he be insisting on instructing students in reading, writing, and arithmetic, where they would have the ability and freedom to think for themselves, and taught the scriptures to have freedom of their souls?
Frederick Douglass fought his entire life for the rights and freedoms of all people. He did not receive admiration and respect from fellow Americans because he took to the streets with weapons and angrily demanded it. He educated himself and fought injustice with his words, both verbal and written. That is why the country sincerely mourned this death on February 20, 1895.
In a very heated political time where we find ourselves pitted against each other in every demographic imaginable, it is easy to lose site of the true focus of our journey. We lament about our circumstances and how distraught our situation is. Frederick Douglass showed us how one man can change hearts, change minds, change directions, and change a nation when he has the right guide for his journey. And it all started by someone reading him the Bible.
“I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for someone to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a white Methodist minister, named Hanson, was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God: that they were by nature rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise.
“I consulted a good old colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to ‘cast all my care upon God.’ This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.” (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass)
May we all have such a radical awakening and find comfort in God’s Word.
That’s my 2 cents.
READING, WRITING, AND REDEMPTION