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9 Things You Should Know About Frederick Douglass

Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the chosen birthday of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). Here are nine things you should know about this writer, orator, statesman, abolitionist, and women’s-rights advocate:

1. Douglas was born into slavery in Maryland circa 1818. (Like many slaves, he never knew his actual date of birth and so chose February 14 as his birthday.) He was given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey but decided to change it when he became a free man. Although he was set on keeping his first name “Frederick,” he asked his friend Nathan Johnson to help him choose a last name. Johnson had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem Lady of the Lake and recommended the name of a main character: Douglass.

2. In his youth, Douglass taught himself to read, aided by scraps of reading material he found and with the help of some white children he came into contact with in his neighborhood. Soon after, while hired out to a Maryland farmer, he surreptitiously taught other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school. During these meeting he plotted his first escape attempt, for reading and writing sparked a desire for freedom. “Once you learn to read,” he would later write, “you will be forever free.”

3. In 1845 Douglass wrote about his life of bondage in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book became an instant bestseller and the preeminent example of the literary genre known as slave narrative. Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime, revising and expanding on his work each time. His second, My Bondage and My Freedom, appeared in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was published in 1881 and revised in 1892.

4. After escaping to the North, Douglass settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became a preacher in an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Honed in the pulpit, his oratorical skills would make him one of the most sought-after abolitionist speakers of his day. Douglass was associated with a school of the antislavery movement that believed slavery should be ended through moral persuasion, and he attempted to use his writings and speaking events to educate slaveholders and Southerners about the evils of slavery.

5. Douglass spent nearly two years traveling in Great Britain speaking for the abolitionist cause. He was even encouraged to settle in England because his fame made it risky for him to return to the United States, where federal law gave his slave master the right to seize Douglass. Two of his English friends, however, raised $710.96 to buy his freedom. At the age of 28, Douglass finally became a free man.

6. Even before the Civil War brought an end to the American slavery, Douglass became active in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1848, he was the only African American to attend the first women’s-rights convention at Seneca Falls. At that convention, many women opposed expanding the right to vote to women. Douglass gave a speech in which said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. (He’d later be criticized by women’s-rights activists for doing just that: he supported the Fifteenth Amendment, which abolished restrictions on voting by race, but not by gender.)

7. Douglass became so famous within the women’s-rights movement that in 1872 he was nominated for vice president of the United States at the Equal Rights Party convention. Although he declined the nomination and refused to campaign, he became the first African American to be listed on a presidential election ballot.

8. In 1888, Douglass also received one vote from the Kentucky delegation at the Republican Convention in Chicago, making him the first African American nominated to be a U.S. presidential candidate for a major political party (he had also received a single vote to be a U.S. presidential candidate during the National Liberty Party Convention in 1848).

9. After the Civil War, Douglass served as president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and as chargé d’affaires (i.e., a diplomat who heads an embassy in the absence of the ambassador) for the Dominican Republic. He was later appointed minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, a post he held between 1889 and 1891. Douglass died on the evening of February 21, 1895, at the age of 78 as he was preparing to leave to give a lecture at Hillside African Church.

Other posts in this series:

Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders •  Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State

Editors’ note: 

Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after the events of 1968. Join the The Gospel Coalition and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3-4 in Memphis. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, Ralph West, John Piper, Jackie Hill Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason, and many others. Learn more here.

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