FREDERICK DOUGLASS 1818 - 1895
One of the most important figures in America's struggle for civil rights and racial equality • Born into slavery around 1818, he eventually escaped and became a respected American diplomat, a counselor to four presidents, a highly regarded orator, and an influential writer. He accomplished all of that without any formal education
The Narrative describes Douglas’ life from early childhood until his escape from slavery in 1838 • It became an instant bestseller in America as well as in Europe, where it was translated into French and German. Despite its critical and popular acclaim, however, it was met with skepticism by proslavery Americans, who could not believe that such a brilliant account could be produced by a slave with no formal education. Some thought that the text was a clever counterfeit document produced by abolitionists and passed off as Douglass’ writing.
CHAPTER 1 • Like other autobiographies, Douglass chooses to begin his story by telling when and where he was born. Yet, this is impossible since slave owners keep slaves ignorant about their age and parentage in order to strip them of their identities • Slaves reduced to the level of animals: “Slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs”
He vividly details the physical cruelties inflicted on slaves, including the rape of female slaves by white male owners • Separation of mother and child is another way slave owners control their slaves, preventing slave children from developing familial bonds, loyalty to another slave, and a knowledge of heritage and identity
CHAPTER 2 • Discusses the meager food and clothing allowance given to slaves: “Children from seven to ten yers old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen all seasons of the year” • Children – fed cornmeal mush from a trough on the ground, like pigs
CHAPTER 3 • Douglass was sent to live at colonel Lloyd’s plantation. Lloyd owned approximately a thousand slaves, and was especially renowned for his beautiful garden, which people traveled many miles to view. It had an abundance of tempting fruits which were off-limits to the hungry slaves, who were whipped if they were caught stealing fruit. Douglass is implicit that the splendor of Colonel Lloyd’s estate was made possibly only by the toil of the slaves. Ironically, slaves were never allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They were constantly kept hungry.
The colonel also had a stable of splendid horses, which he clearly loved more than his slaves. • Slaves – under constant surveillance • Intimidated and brainwashed into believing that their lot is better than itreally is.
CHAPTER 6 • Douglass shows how slavery corrupts the morality of whites. Initially Mrs. Sophia Auld, his new mistress, was a kind and industrious person, who treated Douglass like a genuine human being because she had never owned a slave before. In the beginning, she did not understand that teaching Douglass to read and write would free his mind. But after her husband explained to her that freeing Douglass’ mind could lead her to losing her slave, she changed her attitude. • As long as whites can keep slaves ignorant, they can control them.
CHAPTER 7 • Douglass spent about seven years in Master Hugh Auld’s house and, in secret, during that time he learned to read and write. He tricked neighboring kids into teaching him by giving them bread in exchange for lessons and practiced writing copying little Thomas’s books.
Ironically, his ability to read soon made him unhappy, for it opened up a whole new- and wretched- world for him. Reading newspapers, he realized the enormity of a people enslaved by powerful white masters • He was only twelve years old when he resolved to eventually run away.
In his autobiography Douglass is not forthcoming about how he managed to escape. He explains that his method of escape is still used by other slaves and thus he doesnot want to publicize it. • However, he reveals the details of his escape in his third autobiography, published 1881, saying that he borrowed identification papers from a friend, a free black sailor, and simply took the train to New York City.
According to Douglass, the underground railroad (an organized system of cooperation among abolitionists helping fugitive slaves escape to the North of Canada) should be called the “upperground railroad”. He honors “those good men and women for their noble daring, and applauds them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution”, but he is adamantly opposed to anyone revealing the means whereby slaves escape.
The excitement of being free is soon tempered by loneliness and fear of being captured and kidnapped. in the North, there are plenty of “man-hunters”, who are eager to take fugitive slaves back to their owners for a fee. Fortunately, Douglass meets an abolitionist who advises him to move to New Bedford, Massachusetts and take a new name. • “I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of ‘Frederick’. I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity”
One of Douglass’ central goals is to debunk the mythology of slavery. Southerners and some Northerners held certain beliefs about slavery which helped them rationalize its existence.
Some believed that slavery was justifiable because several passages from the Bible point to the descendants of Ham (Noah’s son) being destined for slavery (Genesis 9:18-27). It was believed that God cursed Ham by turning his skin black and his descendants into slaves. For Southerners, therefore, the descendants of Ham were predestined by the scriptures to be slaves.
Children of mixed-race parentage were always classified as slaves. • If the dark skin of Ham is said to be a sign of this curse, asks Douglass, then why are mullattos – some of whom have skin not significantly darker than whites – also destined by birth to be slaves?
Another myth held by Southerners was that Africans were intellectually inferior and deserved, or even needed, the white man’s care. It was, as British writer Rudyard Kipling describes, “the white man’s burden” to colonize, civilize, and christianize non-Europeans
Douglass condemns both whites and African Americans who buy into this fradulent mythology. • Slave owners and their overseers are the law. Slaves live in constant terror, scared into subservience. The control of slaves requires complete physical, as well as mental submission.
The slave system discourages solidarity among slaves. Owners encourage slaves to betray other slaves; a traitor double-crosses Douglass and prevents his first escape attempt. • Keeping slaves drunk is also one way of keeping them servile.
When owners of property died, got married, or changed their familial ties, their property often changed hands. Slaves were particularly afraid of being sold to Georgia traders because in Georgia slaves were treated even more harshly. • Appraisers valued the slaves much the same way they assessed animals.
Douglass alsocriticizes the vicious and loudly self-righteous Christianity of slave owners who simultaneously broke the laws of God in their treatment of slaves – while professing fervent Christianity. The greatest hypocrites were those who quoted chapter and verse of their religion, but were savagely cruel to their slaves.
He condemns American churches and ministers for not speaking out against slavery. The FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT of 1850 legitimized fugitive slave hunting in free states. Under this Act, even freed African Americans could easily be accused of being fugitive slaves and taken to the South. For Douglass, the Christian church which allows this law to remain in effect, is not really a Christian church at all.
SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES • The first African to arrive in the New World is believed to have accompanied Christopher Columbus on one of his voyages to the Americas; African slaves began arriving shortly after 1492. There are records of slaves being in Haiti by 1501. The first Africans arrived in the British colonies almost 200 years before Douglass was born. In Autust 1619 twenty Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, not as slaves but as indentures servants.
However, the number of Africans in the colonies was relatively small throughout the seventeenth century. Toward the end of that century, Africans were brought to North America as slaves in larger numbers. The establishment of large plantations in the South encouraged the import of African slaves who were deemed more cost effective than indentured servants, and more able to resist European diseases than Native Americans.
Because British law did not specify the status of slaves, the colonists created their own slave codes, and these codes varied from state to state. In general, they denied civil rights to slaves, and punishment meted out to slaves was often harsher than that given to whites for the same crime. In effect, there were two different legal codes – one for whites, another for African Americans.
Existence of two different legal and moral systems, one for whites and another for slaves. Killing a slave was not considered a crime by the courts nor by the community in Maryland.
Throughout his life Douglass remained close to many Republican politicians, including President Grant and Abraham Lincoln, for whose election campaign he worked in 1860. During that time he worked hard to persuade the Union to accept African Americans in the military – two black regiments, the 54th and 55th were formed
1865 – Lincoln assassinated, Civil War ends • In the emotional period after Lincoln’s death and the defeat of the South, Congress passed: • The THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT (abolishing slavery)
The FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT (defining citizenship. For the first time, citizenship was defined by the Constitution and was extended to all people born within the United States – including African Americans – but excluding Native Americans who received citizenship in 1924) • The FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT (granting suffrage, voting rights to African Americans – a right denied American women until 1920 and Native Americans until 1924).
In the years preceding and following Douglass’ death, the increasing use of segregation denied African Americans the rights accorded by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. A year after Douglass’ death, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal under the Constitution; the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine was not fully overturned until the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964.
Douglass ends his third autobiography with a warning about the rise of JIM CROW LAWS and the imposition of near-slavery status on African Americans in the South, pointing out that economic slavery can be just as devastating as legal bondage.