Frederick Douglass

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, around 1818. The exact year and date of Douglass's birth are unknown, though later in life he chose to celebrate it on February 14. Douglass initially lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. At a young age, Douglass was selected to live in the home of the plantation owners, one of whom may have been his father. His mother, an intermittent presence in his life, died when he was around 10.

Frederick Douglass was eventually sent to the Baltimore home of Hugh Auld. It was there that Douglass first acquired the skills that would vault him to national celebrity. Defying a ban on teaching slaves to read and write, Auld’s wife Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet when he was around 12. When Auld forbade his wife’s lessons, Douglass continued to learn from white children and others in the neighborhood.

It was through reading that Douglass’s ideological opposition to slavery began to take shape. He read newspapers avidly and sought out political writing and literature as much as possible. In later years, Douglass credited The Columbian Orator with clarifying and defining his views on human rights. Douglass shared his newfound knowledge with other enslaved people. Hired out to William Freeland, he taught other slaves on the plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly church service. Interest was so great that in any week, more than 40 slaves would attend lessons. Although Freeland did not interfere with the lessons, other local slave owners were less understanding. Armed with clubs and stones, they dispersed the congregation permanently.

With Douglass moving between the Aulds, he was later made to work for Edward Covey, who had a reputation as a "slave-breaker.” Covey’s constant abuse did nearly break the 16-year-old Douglass psychologically. Eventually, however, Douglass fought back, in a scene rendered powerfully in his first autobiography. After losing a physical confrontation with Douglass, Covey never beat him again.

Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. Images Shape Your Reality

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