Google kicked off its recognition of Black History Month this morning with a tribute to Frederick Douglass, arguably America’s most prominent anti-slavery activist of the 19th century. Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass rose from his beginnings to become an influential writer and speaker who championed not only the abolition movement but women’s rights as well.
Frederick began his life as a slave in Maryland in the early part of the 19th century. His master’s wife took an interest in him and sent him to Baltimore, secretly teaching him to read and write in a move that was virtually unheard of at the time. After the ruse was discovered and stopped, Frederick Douglass continued to learn on his own. It was also during his time in Baltimore that he met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman. When he was sent back to a plantation years later, he educated the other slaves until the plantation owners found out and forced him to stop.
He eventually escaped slavery and fled to New York City in 1838. He described the experience in a letter to a friend.
“I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions,” he wrote.
It was in New York City that he was reunited with Anna Murray, who he married. The couple took the name Douglass when they settled in Massachusetts.
Frederick Douglass became a preacher and anti-slavery activist as well as a writer. He published an abolitionist newspaper, and his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was one of three autobiographies he would pen. Published in 1845, it became a bestseller, influencing public opinion on the subject. Popular thought at the time held that slaves could not learn to read or write, and his book went a long way towards convincing its readers otherwise.
Accounts call Frederick Douglass a riveting public speaker on the subject of human rights, and his efforts did not stop at the abolition of slavery. Frederick Douglass was the only black speaker at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first women’s rights convention ever held on American soil. The event was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two women who had been prevented from taking a spot on the convention floor at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. The experience led them to found the American women’s rights movement. As the only African-American speaker at the inaugural convention, Frederick Douglass was influential in helping to pass the convention’s only contentious resolution, one that called for the right to vote.
Frederick Douglass’ profile continued to rise, and he went on to advise presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson on slavery and other issues affecting African Americans of the day. Although he was known to complain that Lincoln was acting too slowly on the issue of slavery, Frederick Douglass that Lincoln was America’s “greatest president.” He also became the first African American to be nominated for vice president as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull of the Equal Rights Party, albeit without his approval. He spoke during the 1888 Republican National Convention.
Frederick Douglass continued his work in the abolitionist movement after the Civil War and through the Reconstruction Period until his death in 1895.
Many schools, parks, and more have been named in honor of this important American historical figure, and today’s nod by Google is not the only recognition Frederick Douglass is receiving 121 years after his death. A recent children’s book celebrates the friendship between Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, the famed suffragette, who became neighbors in Rochester, New York, towards the end of his life. The book, Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass (Scholastic) by Dean Robbins and illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko imagines a conversation between the two friends over tea.
Another recent release, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd (Liveright), examines the visual legacy of the most photographed man of his era through some 160 photographs along with lithographs and other images of the day.
[Public Domain Image via the Collection of the New York Historical Society]