Who Was Frederick Douglass?

When you think of the word “freedom,” what comes to mind? Some may think of Independence Day, while others may think of Juneteenth or September 16. Perhaps you think of Bastille Day!

On July 4, 1776, leaders in the American colonies signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring the independence of the United States. However, not all Americans were free that day.

For those who were enslaved, July 4 did not bring freedom. For most of them, freedom would not come until almost a century later.

America has often treated people unequally. While it can be painful, it is important to reflect on dark periods of history in order to learn from past mistakes. Today’s Wonder of the Day is about a man who was born into slavery but later became a prominent author, speaker, and advocate against slavery.

Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland around 1818. His birth name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His mother was enslaved, and his father was likely her owner. At the age of 20, Frederick escaped from slavery and adopted the last name Douglass. He chose this name based on a character in Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.”

Many enslaved individuals were not taught how to read or write, but Douglass was taught the alphabet as a child. He went on to learn how to read and write, often with the help of white children and others in his Baltimore neighborhood. Douglass shared his knowledge and taught other enslaved individuals how to read the Bible.

After escaping from slavery, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore who had assisted him in his escape. They settled in a free black community in Massachusetts, where Douglass became involved in the abolitionist movement.

The abolitionist movement aimed to end slavery, and Douglass played a significant role by sharing his own story. He quickly became a regular speaker at anti-slavery events and published his first autobiography in 1845, titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

His book became a bestseller in the United States and was even translated into several European languages. To avoid being captured again after its publication, Douglass traveled to England and spent a couple of years there before returning to the U.S.

Later on, Douglass published two additional versions of his autobiography: My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881. These works are among his most important and enduring legacies. He also wrote for anti-slavery newspapers.

Douglass became one of the most prominent leaders of the 19th century. During the Civil War, he worked tirelessly and even served as an advisor to President Lincoln on two occasions.

After the Union’s victory in the Civil War, Douglass continued to advocate for racial equality and became an early advocate for women’s rights. He later served as the U.S. foreign minister to Haiti in 1889.

Frederick Douglass passed away in 1895. He remains one of the most renowned advocates for racial equality and social justice in American history.

Try It Out

Are you interested in learning more about Frederick Douglass? Make sure to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Imagine the experience of listening to Frederick Douglass speak. While we cannot go back in time, we can read one of his speeches to understand the impact of his words. Go online and read “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” to grasp the significance of Douglass as a speaker in the abolitionist movement.
  • Think you are knowledgeable about Frederick Douglass? Like many historical figures, Douglass has been misunderstood throughout history. Read “Five Myths About Frederick Douglass” to discover the traditional misconceptions about his life. Which myth intrigued you the most? Share your newfound knowledge with a friend or family member.
  • The National Park Service now preserves Cedar Hill, the residence where Frederick Douglass lived for the last 17 years of his life. Take a Virtual Tour of Cedar Hill to gain insight into the place Douglass considered home in his later years. Would you be interested in visiting Cedar Hill? Write a paragraph explaining your reasons for or against.

Valuable Sources

  • http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/frederick-douglass (accessed on January 24, 2020)
  • http://www.biography.com/people/frederick-douglass-9278324 (accessed on January 24, 2020)


1. Who was Frederick Douglass?

Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He was born into slavery in Maryland in the early 1800s and escaped to the North in 1838. Douglass became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, advocating for the end of slavery and equal rights for all African Americans. He was a powerful and influential speaker, using his own experiences of slavery to raise awareness and rally support for the cause. Douglass also authored several autobiographies, including his most famous work, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” He dedicated his life to fighting for justice and equality, leaving a lasting impact on American history.

2. What were Frederick Douglass’ contributions to the abolitionist movement?

Frederick Douglass made significant contributions to the abolitionist movement in the United States. As an escaped slave himself, Douglass was able to provide firsthand accounts of the atrocities and injustices of slavery. His powerful speeches and writings brought attention to the inhumane treatment of slaves and called for immediate emancipation. Through his work, Douglass also sought to challenge the prevailing racist ideologies of the time and promote equality for all African Americans. He played a key role in organizing and participating in various anti-slavery conventions and rallies, helping to mobilize support for the abolitionist cause. His efforts helped bring about the eventual end of slavery in the United States.

3. How did Frederick Douglass impact the Civil Rights Movement?

While Frederick Douglass lived and fought for equal rights long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, his impact on this movement cannot be overstated. Douglass’ work as an abolitionist and advocate for African American rights laid the foundation for future activists and leaders. His writings and speeches continue to inspire and educate generations of individuals fighting for equality. Douglass’ emphasis on education as a means of empowerment and his commitment to nonviolent resistance were influential in shaping the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. His legacy as a champion for justice and equality served as a beacon of hope for those who fought for civil rights in the mid-20th century.

4. How is Frederick Douglass remembered today?

Frederick Douglass is remembered today as one of the most important figures in American history. His contributions to the abolitionist movement, his powerful speeches and writings, and his unwavering commitment to equality have solidified his place in the annals of history. Douglass’ life and achievements are celebrated during Black History Month in the United States, and his legacy continues to be studied and honored in schools and universities. Monuments, statues, and historical markers have been erected in his honor, and his autobiographies are considered essential reading for understanding the history of slavery and the fight for civil rights in America.

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