This year the nation will celebrate the 200th birthday of Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass

Shonda McClain | 2/14/2018, 5:33 a.m.
Two hundred years after his birth in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass’ legacy will be celebrated with festivities across the ...
Frederick Douglass

He was raised by his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey, and did not have a close relationship with his mother, who lived on a plantation nearly 12 miles away. He saw her but a handful of times before her death when he was seven. During this time, Douglass was exposed to the full breadth of the indignity and brutality of slavery.

Throughout his young life, Douglass was moved around from plantation to plantation according to the whims of his owner who would loan him out. When he was eight, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. Auld’s wife, Sophia, took a liking to young Douglass and taught him to read, which was illegal. She stopped under her husband’s admonition that literacy would encourage slaves to want freedom. This did not dampen Douglass’ yearning to read and he recounts in his autobiography how he continued to teach himself how to read and write in secret. When he was 12, he bought a book called “The Columbian Orator.” The book, first published in 1797, was a collection of “revolutionary speeches, debates and writing on natural rights,” and its words would change his life.

He would later say that going to Baltimore “laid the foundation and opened the gateway to all my subsequent prosperity.”

After seven years of living with the Aulds, Douglass, 15, was hired out as a field hand to a farmer named Edward Covey. Covey was known as a brutal “slave-breaker” and a rebellious Douglass suffered mightily under Covey’s lash. He was whipped daily and often left to starve because of his rebuke of Covey’s authority and harsh treatment of slaves.

"Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul and spirit. 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,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Douglass’ “body, soul and spirit” were broken, but not his will to escape bondage. In his memoir, he wrote: “From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom."

Indeed, Douglass’ premonition came true, but not without a few setbacks. On Jan. 1, 1836, Douglass resolved that he would be free before the end of the year. He planned an escape, but his plan was discovered and he was jailed. Two years later, freedom was, again, within his grasp. On Sept. 3, 1838, with the assistance of a free slave woman, Anna Murray, Douglass fled Baltimore disguised as a sailor, traveling by train and steamboat to New York City, where he made his way to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles. In less than 24 hours, he was free.