On September 3rd, 1838 Frederick Douglass, a black man, escaped to a free state, beginning his journey as one of the most important abolitionists in history.
Douglass was working as a slave in the shipyards of Baltimore, Maryland. The state of Maryland was a slave state and black people were not allowed to travel freely without “free papers”, which were issued to them only if their Master or owner(s) granted them their freedom. According to Douglass’ own publication “My Escape from Slavery” featured in Century Magazine in 1881,he borrowed a friend’s sailor’s credentials (which could serve a similar purpose as “free papers”) and climbed aboard a traing headed North. He was a runaway slave.
Train Ride to Freedom
Although Douglass had made is successfully aboard the train, he had to wait with the other black passengers in the Negor Car for the train conductor to inspect his papers. Douglass states that “a brief glance” at the borrowed papers satisfied the conductor. But he was not free yet: the train travelled through several other slaves states, namely Delaware, on its way to New York. Douglass wrote, “Though I was not a murderer fleeing from justice, I felt perhaps quite as miserable as such a criminal.”
A Free Man
After landing in New York City, Frederick Douglass went on to Bedford, Massachusetts, where he arned his first actual money that no one could take from him. Douglass wrote, “To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me,– that it was mine — that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin — one must have been in some sense himself a slave.”
The Underground Railroad
Douglass became an important part of the Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. The Underground Railroad was founded by a Quaker in 1787 as an objection to slavery. Other abolitionists, free blacks and white citizens, opened their homes, called stations, to slaves escaping to the North. Some even acted as “conductors”, going South and putting their own lives in great jeopardy to guide escaping slaves to the North (The Slave Trade by James Walvin). One of the most famous conductors was Harriet Tubman, a woman considered so dangerous to slaveowners that her capture was worth $40,000.
Douglass worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well as a station master in Rochester, New York.
A Writer and a Speaker
In 1841, William Lloyd Garrison, a Quaker and abolitionist, heard Frederick Douglass speak and arranged for him to become a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Soon after, Douglass began publishing books and aryicles detailing the atrocities committed against him and all African-Americans. His most read writings include A Narrative of the Life Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845); “The Heroic Slave”, pulblished in Autographs for Freedom(1853); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).
In addition to speaking and writing on behalf of black Americans, Frederick Douglass was also a staunch supporter of women’s rights. Douglass was also the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States. He fathered five children with his wife Anna and was an ordained Episcopalian miniter. Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack in 1895 but he is celebrated as one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and black history. It was merely 170 years ago that Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom, changing the United States forever.