FREDERICK DOUGLASS: SIGHTS AND SOUNDS THAT FORMED THE MAN AND HIS RESOLVE
In his important book on Baltimore’s domestic slave trade, Cash for Blood, author Ralph Clayton chronicles the thousands of slaves sent south from docks in Fell’s Point and other locations here in Baltimore.
Two prominent figures in that slave trade were Austin Woolfolk and Hope Slatter. They operated slave jails that held these unfortunate souls until they were marched with whips cracking to ships waiting in the night to take them to the New Orleans slave markets that supplied labor for Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana cotton and sugar plantations.
Those slave jails, or pens, as they were sometimes called, were very familiar to a young Baltimore slave named Frederick Bailey, who would later take the name” Douglass” from a narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott.
At night, young Frederick would sometimes hear the slaves weeping and moaning as they shuffled by in their chains past his home on Philpot Street in Fell’s Point, on their way to the ships docked nearby.
He walked by the slave jails or holding pens on the way to the Sharp Street Church, the oldest Black church in Baltimore.
One of the slave pens was near the church.
THE BIG RISK
Being sold south was a great fear of slaves in Baltimore, Maryland, and the border states. It could mean being torn from your family and loved ones. Even free Black people, who were sometimes kidnapped off the street, feared the specter of being enslaved in the deep south where the brutality of the plantation system worked men and women like animals and sometimes even to death.
Slavery is always a brutal affair, even in its most moderate manifestation.
So, when Frederick Douglass made the decision to leave a relatively safe and somewhat tolerant life of a hired -out slave in Fells Point, where he had a fiancé and the ability to find and negotiate his own employment and live apart from his enslaver, he was putting a lot on the line.
If he was caught, he knew that being sold south was a real possibility.
But at that moment, he taught us all a lesson.
He left the security of the known for the unknown.
He stepped on the train.
The early 19th century was a period of social and religious advocacy. Deeply rooted in the Second Awakening, the country saw causes like slavery abolition, temperance, penal and debt reform, child labor, and women’s suffrage.
Abolitionist, human rights and women’s rights activist, orator, author, journalist, publisher, and social reformer, his two lifelong goals were the immediate abolition of slavery and racial equality under the law.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS' ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY
Douglass escaped slavery with a bold plan, a clever disquise, steady nerves, and help from his friends. At the age of 20, Frederick Bailey (as he was called) lived under slavery in Fell’s Point, one mile west of this marker. He was determined to escape to the north, and he saw an opportunity when, in 1837, the first railroad linking Baltimore to Philadelphia was completed.
But to ride the train, Frederick needed to pass as a free man, and avoid being recognized. That meant wearing a disguise and borrowing somebody’s “free papers” – the offical documents all free Black people were required to carry. One of Frederick’s acquaintances in Fell’s Point was a retired Black sailor named Stanley, who offered to lend Frederick his “Seaman’s Protection” certificate. This is probably what gave Frederick the idea of disguising himself as a sailor. His friend Anna Murray, a skilled seamstrees, made him a red shirt like those worn by sailors, and he acquired a sailor’s waterproof “tarpaulin hat.” As a shipyard worker, Frederick knew the sailors’ walk and talk. His disguise was complete, but the plan was still extremely risky. It now depended on Frederick’s courage, luck and acting skills.
The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad had two stations in Baltimore: one down-town on President Street, and one right here on Boston Street in Canton. In his last autobiography Douglass described his escape but never said exactly where it took place. Canton would have made far more sense for making a safe, fast getaway. Here, the slow horse-drawn trains from downtown were switched to steam engines. On September 3, 1838, Frederick waited near the Canton depot with his friend Isaac Rolles, a wagon driver, who had brought Frederick’s baggage. When the next train began to slowly roll forward, Frederick jumped aboard. When the white conductor asked for his papers, Frederick, imitating a sailor’s swagger, handed him the borrowed Seaman’s Protection and proudly declared, “I have a paper with the American eagle on it that will carry me around the world.” Frederick’s bold performance fooled the conductor, who smiled and gave the papers back after a moment’s glance. But there were more close calls along the way: a young man from Baltimore recognized him on the Susquehanna River ferry, but Frederick slipped away.
On the far side of the river, he dodged the eyes of a sea captain who would have recognized him. A third Baltimore man, a blacksmith Frederick knew by name, stared at him for part of the trip, but never said a word to betray him. The trip took most of a day. Behind his nautical disguise, Frederick was terrified. Later he wrote, “The heart of no deer, with hungry hounds on his trail, in full chase, could have beaten more anxiously than did mine from the time I left Baltimore till I reached Philadelphia.
Stepping ashore in Pennsylvania, Frederick went to the nearest railroad station and continued his journey north to freedom and destiny. He arrived safely in Philadelphia where, although slavery was illegal, the streets were still prowled by slave-catchers hunting for fugitives. Frederick traveled on to New York, where he was reunited with his fiancee from Fell’s Point. Frederick and Anna were married in New York on September 15 by another escaped slave from Maryland Reverend James W. C. Pennington who was born James Pembroke, enslaved in Maryland in 1807.
On the advice of their host in New York, David Ruggles (NYC Abolitionist & UGRR Agent), Anna and Frederick left for New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Frederick was to seek work as a caulker, following the trade in which he had been trained in Baltimore. Frederick soon joined the anti-slavery movement and, within a few years, grew to be its most effective spokesman and strategist. He was a powerful supporter of the Union cause in the Civil War, seeing it as the only way to crush the institution of slavery.
Let’s take a brief look at what Frederick Douglass accomplished by getting on that train:
FOR THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
Frederick Douglass was an initial member, and sometimes the only man, in the early women’s suffrage movement.
He was at the famous and important 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that jump started the American Women’s Movement, and throughout his life he was in the vanguard of the battle for women to get the vote and equal rights.
Douglass’s main goals in public life were to bring an immediate end to slavery, and to secure racial equality under the law. He, along with William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were the most famous abolitionists in the 19th century.
He was a very capable and eloquent abolitionist who was able to work across racial, ideological, and indeed national boundaries to effectively drive forward the movement to end slavery to a successful conclusion.
FOR THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
He was also very much involved with the Underground Railroad while publishing his paper in Rochester, New York. Within his office was a trap door that led to a secret staircase. One of Douglass’s newspaper employees related that it was not unusual for him to come to work in the early morning and find several fugitives sitting on the steps.
He generally remained in Rochester about five months out of the year, and by his own estimate, he assisted approximately- eight runaways a month.
FOR THE ABOLITION CAUSE: FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND JOHN BROWN
With Douglass we have an important primary source on the development of John Brown’s plans to bring about the Civil War. His eventual raid on Harpers Ferry was one of the pivotal events in the nation’s march into that conflict.
Brown asked Douglass to visit with him when he lived in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1847. There, he first laid out his original plans. Douglass thought the plan far-fetched and not thought through.
They kept in contact over the next ten years, and in 1858, Brown stayed for a period at the Douglass home in Rochester. Their last meeting was at a Stone Quarry in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, only about 100 miles west of Baltimore.
Once again, Brown tried to convince Douglass to join him. Douglass told Brown that the plan was ill- conceived, and again refused.
On October 17, just eight weeks after their meeting at the Stone Quarry, Douglass was speaking at an event in Philadelphia when he heard the news that John Brown had been arrested.
FOR INFLUENCING GREAT BRITAIN
In 1846, his supporters in England made arrangements to purchase his freedom. They contacted Hugh Auld, whose family had held Douglass (then known as Frederick Bailey) in slavery. This document illustrates some of the negotiations between Anna Richardson in England and Hugh Auld in Maryland as they arranged Douglass’s manumission.
Frederick Douglass made two trips to the British Isles before the Civil War. He lectured widely on slavery and abolition. If England had recognized the Confederacy, or even come in on the side of the secessionists, it would have been a huge blow to the prospects of victory for the Union.
Douglass’ visits are credited in helping to keep British public opinion neutral or pro- Union.
FOR ADVISING PRESIDENT LINCOLN
Douglass was the first African American to meet with a sitting U.S. president in a position of equality. He met with and advised President Lincoln on three separate occasions.
The first was in August of 1863 when he visited the White House to take the president to task because Black soldiers were receiving less pay than white soldiers. Douglass had spent the better part of the year recruiting men for the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Two of Douglass’s own sons were the first to join up. This was the fighting unit that was immortalized in the movie “Glory” with their heroic attack on Fort Wagner.
The second time Lincoln asked Douglass to come to the White House. It was the eve of the 1864 presidential election. Lincoln and many others thought he would lose due to the dismal performance of the Union Army and the war weariness of the northern population. He wanted Douglass to go south and get the slaves to come join the Union Lines. Lincoln knew that if he lost, the Emancipation Proclamation would not hold.
THE PEN MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: AN INFLUENTIAL WRITER, JOURNALIST, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER
Frederick Douglass, in getting on the train, became one of the most widely read authors of the 19th century, and his books are still widely read today.
He wrote three autobiographies that help to define the genre. His first, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass became the most important book in the slave narrative canon.
His third autobiography Life and Times offers readers and researchers an important primary source on the history of the period.
Douglass became an important editor, publisher, and journalist. Starting in 1947 he founded the North Star Newspaper with Martin Delaney, who went on to become the highest ranking African American Union officer in the Civil War.
For the next 27 years, Douglass published influential newspapers, with commentary on the important affairs of the day, and also provided an influential editorial presence for African Americans when their voices were not heard or ignored.
In the 19th Century, oratory or public speaking was the big crowd draw. In today’s terms, a great orator was a combination rock star and star athlete. Public speaking was the ticket to fame and fortune as well as the vehicle to advance ideas and movements.
And remember, this was the period of some of the greatest speakers this country has ever known.
He was able to demand the highest speaking fees, traveled the length and breath of the country and indeed the world. But even more important than his great skills as a public speaker, was what he said.
AN INFLUENCER, PAR EXCELLENCE
The first was the speech-
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?
Douglass’s purpose was to gain support from the group of people who had yet to choose one side or the other. He pointed out the hypocrisy in the idea of freedom when only a fraction of Americans were truly free.
The second was his 1876speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. with President Grant, his cabinet, and many of the nation’s political leaders in the audience.
It was a brilliant recitation and analysis on the then unfolding legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the meaning of the very recent Civil War, and Emancipation.
His last major speech was “The Lesson of The Hour” delivered at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington D.C., in 1894.
He continued to speak during the advent of Jim Crow as reconstruction ended and the rights gained after the Civil War were being rolled back, some with great violence, all with grave and lingering consequences.
Between 1889 and 1899 the U.S. witnessed a lynching almost every day. By the end of the century, over 2,500 lynchings had taken place in the U.S., with the Deep South bearing the brunt of this unprecedented racial lawlessness.
A dark cloud had settled over race relations in the country – a cloud that would not begin to lift until the coming of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a cloud that lingers still in the 21st century.
THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED PERSON IN 19TH CENTURY AMERICA
He saw photography’s value as a social leveler as it became increasingly affordable to ordinary people in the last half of the 19th century.
In his lecture, “Pictures and Progress” Douglass remarked: “The humbled servant girl whose income is but a few shillings per week may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and court royalty.”
By distributing photographs of himself posed and clothed in the manner of his own choosing, Douglass provided alternatives to racist, stereotypical portrayals of African Americans so common in the age of the minstrel shows.
He acknowledged the power not only of photographs, but also of images in general, including political cartoons and other printed visual formats.
FOREVER LOYAL TO THE POLITICAL PARTY OF LINCOLN
Politically, Douglass flirted with the Liberty Party, the Free-Soil Party and was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Equal Rights Party.
Despite his sometimes-sharp criticism of Republican leaders for their failure to protect the rights of Black Americans, Douglass remained aligned to the then- Republican Party for the rest of his life and campaigned for each of their presidential candidates from Lincoln to Harrison.
He used his tremendous influence among Black voters to keep them faithful to the Grand Old Party.
Before his death in 1895, he was rewarded for his services by appointments as Marshall of the District of Columbia in 1877, as Recorder of Deeds for the District in 1881, and as Minister to Haiti in 1889.
WORLDWIDE, THE MOST FAMOUS MARYLANDER
The second week of February was selected as Black History Week- which became Black History Month- because the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday both fell in that week
At least 15 states have schools named after Frederick Douglass. There are Airports- Bridges- Parks – Squares and entire neighborhoods named in his honor.
Statues to Frederick Douglass extend from the bust in Fells Point to the statuary on the Campus of Morgan State University to the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park.
You can also find statues in cities that honor this son of Maryland, from Washington D.C. to Rochester New York to County Cork Ireland.
Frederick Bailey did get on the train in Baltimore’s Canton station and rode it into history.
At the end of his life Frederick Douglass was the most famous African American in the world.
A REMEMBERANCE BY BOSTON COLLEGE HISTORIAN HEATHER RICHARDSON
“To me, Douglass’s decision to step aboard that train is everything. How many of us would have taken that risk, especially knowing that even in the best case, success would mean trying to build a new life, far away from everyone we had ever known?
Douglass’s step was such a little one, such an easy one… except that it meant the difference between life and death, the difference between a forgotten, enslaved shipyard worker and the great Frederick Douglass, who went on to become a powerful voice for American liberty.
Tomorrow, my students will graduate, and every year, students ask me if I have any advice for them as they leave college or university, advice I wish I had had at their age. The answer is yes, after all these years of living and of studying history, I have one piece of advice: