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Frederick Douglass

This "man who wore his diploma on his back" helped lead his race out of slavery.

In 1818 Harriet Baily, a Maryland slave, bore a son and named him Frederick. Like many other slave women, she never was able to introduce him to a father. She could only tell him his father was a master named Aaron Anthony. And like many slave mothers, she never saw her son after age 7.

Young Frederick learned starvation and degredation and for his first, but by no means last, time watched a beating at the Anthony plantation. Naturally charming, he did find his way into the good graces of Anthony's relatively kind daughter who arranged for him to go to Baltimore as a house servant to Hugh and Sophia Auld.

In their home Sophia Auld read to him from the Bible and consented to teach him to read. But when Hugh heard of the lessons, he furiously forbad them. Reading, besides being illegal for a slave, would make Frederick discontent and troublesome. He would no longer be a suitable slave.

That was enough for young Frederick. If learning to read was the path to freedom, he would learn to read. Ever creative, he bartered pieces of bread to poor white children for reading lessons. And by age 13 he had acquired a copy of The Columbian Orator and was reading newspapers. From the Orator's fiery exaltations of liberty and the newspapers' accounts of abolitionists, Frederick developed a deep hunger for freedom.

At age 15, due to Aaron Anthony's death, Frederick went to work as a field hand for Thomas Auld. He was part of Thomas's share of the estate - an estate who's division dispersed his family far and wide. Most devastating to Frederick was his grandmother's fate. Judged too old to work, she was sent into the woods to die.

Thomas did not like Frederick's independence of mind and sent him to a local slave breaker, Edward Covey. Covey was a truly brutal man and nearly succeeded in breaking the 15-year-old Frederick's will. But one day when Covey was tying him up for a beating, Frederick got the urge to fight back. The two fought for 2 hours before Covey retired from the struggle, saying that if Frederick had submitted, he wouldn't have been beaten so badly. Why Covey didn't kill him is uncertain for the law would have permitted it. One story simply says that doing so would have been to admit he couldn't beat a 15-year-old boy and he did not want turn hurt his tough reputation. Another says that a kind-hearted relative of Covey's who was visiting hid his shotgun. Either way, Frederick had learned that he could fight back.

After working a couple other places and having one escape attempt foiled, Frederick went back to work for Hugh Auld in Baltimore. Hugh taught Frederick to caulk ships, a trade in high demand in the Eastern ports. Soon Douglass was making good money -- for his master. Having had his appetite for freedom whetted, seeing the money he made and turning it all over to Auld angered him. He worked a deal with Auld so that he provided for his own accomadations and paid Hugh a set amount. This allowed Frederick both to save a little money and have a measure of freedom. It was also good preparation for the responsibilities of complete freedom in the future.

During this time of partial freedom, Frederick met Anna.

More of this story is coming soon!

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself
Frederick Douglass
on VHS

Frederick Douglass (History Maker Bios)

for grades 3-5

For more information on Douglass' life, see

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