Black History Month – Day 16 Spotlight: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. He became a major speaker for the cause of abolition.

Douglass also wrote several autobiographies, eloquently describing his life as a slave, and his struggles to be free. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845 and was his best-known work, influential in gaining support for abolition.

He wrote two more autobiographies, with his last, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881 and covering events through and after the Civil War.

During the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country, known for his orations on the condition of the black race and on other issues such as women’s rights. His eloquence gathered crowds at every location. His reception by leaders in England and Ireland added to his stature.

Douglass and the abolitionists argued that because the aim of the Civil War was to end slavery, African Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass publicized this view in his newspapers and several speeches. Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate-held territory – Slaves in Union-held areas and Northern states would become freed with the adoption of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. Douglass described the spirit of those awaiting the proclamation: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky … we were watching … by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day … we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”

With the North no longer obliged to return slaves to their owners in the South, Douglass fought for equality for his people. He made plans with Lincoln to move the liberated slaves out of the South. During the war, Douglass helped the Union by serving as a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. His son Frederick Douglass Jr. also served as a recruiter and his other son, Lewis Douglass, fought for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Following President Lincoln’s death, at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, Douglass was the keynote speaker. In his speech, Douglass spoke frankly about Lincoln, balancing the good and the bad in his account. He called Lincoln “the white man’s president” and cited his tardiness in joining the cause of emancipation.

He noted that Lincoln initially opposed the expansion of slavery but did not support its elimination. But Douglass also asked, “Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?”

The crowd, roused by his speech, gave him a standing ovation. A long-told anecdote claims that the widow Mary Lincoln gave Lincoln’s favorite walking stick to Douglass in appreciation. Lincoln’s walking stick still rests in Douglass’ house known as Cedar Hill. It is both a testimony and a tribute to the effect of Douglass’ powerful oratory.

After the Civil War, Douglass remained very active in America’s struggle to reach its potential as a “land of the free”. Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant. He was fond of saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”