Juneteenth: A Short Biography and Celebration of Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist and Civil Rights Activist

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Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818. He never knew his father, and he was quickly separated from his mother. He lived with his grandmother, also an enslaved person, until age six, at which point he was again separated from his grandparents. He lived almost his entire childhood without the nurture of his parents, the presence of his grandparents, or the companionship of his friends or siblings.

    Like many slaves, he was shipped indiscriminately from plantation to plantation, plantation to city, and city to plantation, even as a child. At the age of eight, he was shipped off to Baltimore to support the household of Hugh and Sophia Auld. Sophia, for a short time, treated Douglass, for the first time in his life, with some dignity, beginning to teach him the alphabet and basic spelling; Hugh, after hearing the “great injustice” of teaching a human to read, shut down his wife’s aid and led her into her feverish spell of violence and rage against Mr. Douglass, who was still less than a decade old.

    Shortly after his shipment to Baltimore, a death and an argument among the inheritors of the estate led him to be sent to be valued with all the other human “property.” While the inheritors evaluated him, he saw as one of the inheritors, Andrew, “threw him [Douglass’s brother] on the ground, and with the heel of his boot stamped upon his head till the blood gushed from his nose and ears” in order to give Douglass “a sample of his bloody disposition.” He was, to his excitement, transferred back to Baltimore, away from Andrew.

    After Andrew died, all of his slaves were transferred into the hands of strangers, who, instead of emancipating the slaves of Andrew’s ownership, chose to sell them again, treat them like cattle again, continuing to bound them in the shackles of involuntary servitude, again. They chose to separate Douglass’s grandmother, one of Andrew’s slaves, an enslaved person her entire life, weakened by age and a life of strenuous, nauseating labor, from her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, building her a small hut in the middle of the forest and leaving her to die, putting her down as they do with dogs or horses when they break a bone.

    Douglass recounts her death in his ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’: “The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water… The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?”

    After a feud between Hugh Auld, his Baltimore master, and Auld’s brother, Master Thomas Auld, and Douglass was sent immediately to Thomas’ plantation, never again to return to Baltimore as a slave. Thomas would send Douglass to Edward Covey, the plantation master infamous for his brutalistic and inhumane treatment of his slaves. 

    Under Covey’s rule, Douglass was murderously whipped and beaten almost daily, to the point where his lacerations did not even have the time to heal. He recounts the languishing he faced under Covey’s wrath: “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” Only once he stood up for himself, seizing Covey by the throat and kicking him near the ribs, did Covey relent, ceasing his beatings.

    As he continued to be transferred from plantation to plantation, his longing for freedom grew stronger, brighter, more persistent and more insatiable. Once, while watching the movement of sails along the Chesapeake, he lamented to the free inhabitants of the ship: “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free!”

    His prayers would, thankfully, be answered. In 1838, after twenty years - his entire life - under the chains of slavery, he escaped, with the help of his free lover, Anna Murray Douglass, whom he would remain with until her death, via a northbound train on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore railroad. Alongside Murray, he traveled all the way to New York, later settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a center for abolitionism. 

    Upon obtaining his freedom, Douglass would soon become a licensed preacher and activist, speaking against slavery, segregation, and colonization. He would come to be known for his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, a narrative recounting his journey from slavery to freedom from slavery; his speeches, including “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July”, perhaps his most well-known speech; his struggles for women’s rights alongside abolition, attending the Seneca Falls Convention as the only black attendee present, supporting women’s suffrage, and calling for more female involvement in government; and his “North Star” publication, an abolitionist editorial akin to William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator.”

    His struggling for his personal freedom and, later, for that of his brothers and sisters, represents perfectly the motto of his “North Star” editorial: “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and all we are Brethren.” Douglass represents the most profound freedom fighter our country has fostered: struggling not only for his own freedom, but for that of his brothers, sisters, and fellow humanity. 

    That is why, on this day of June 19th, 2022, we celebrate the sacrifice and incredible work of Frederick Douglass to lead America to live up to its promise that “All men are created equal.”