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Frederick Douglass - WhoDat?

Frederick Douglass - WhoDat?

On Feb 1, 2017 President Trump made a speech in honor of Black History Month where he referenced Frederick Douglass and didn't seem to know much about him. Honestly, I didn't know much about Douglass other than he is an important figure in the abolitionist movement & his pictures make him look like a bad-ass gentleman. So I thought this was a great opportunity to learn more; many thanks to Karthik for helping me put this together:


  • Life as a Slave was Terrible

Courtesy this NPR article, Douglass was separated from his mother, and likely slave master father, as a child. He endured routine floggings and hunger; according to his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) he wasn't served meals so he often fought the house dog for table scraps.

  • He Taught Himself to Read

Douglass was taught letters as a child in secret however, like many slaves, he wasn't allowed to learn how to read. At 20, after escaping the house he was a slave in, he got a job working on boats and from this work he knew what the different sides of the boat were called; bow, port, etc. These boat side terms were often inscribed on the floors of boats so Douglass used this knowledge + his knowledge of letters to teach himself what the words are for the different boat sides, thus teaching himself to read. This shows gumption, no? Courtesy Nick Offerman's book of America's gutsiest leaders (this is a great read!).

  • "The Fourth of the July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Douglass' legacy now is in his 3 autobiographies:

  1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)
  2. My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
  3. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)

At the time of his life however, his reputation came from his writings in a newspaper which inspired many organizations, not just black ones, to call on him to give speeches. Between the year of 1855 - 1856 Douglass gave about 70 lectures during a tour that spanned 4,000 - 5,000 miles. At the tail-end of the tour he was invited to give a speech for a white crowd in Rochester, NY on July 5, 1852 in honor of Independence Day. This inspired one of Douglass' most famous speeches, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro", where he laid out, to the crowd's surprise, the irony of a white crowd asking a slave to honor the day of America's freedom. Click the link for an excerpt as read by Morgan Freeman.

  • From Escaped Slave to Presidential Advisor

Douglass saw the ideas being fought in the Civil War, and the Union's win, as a rebirth for the nation. During the Civil War President Lincoln, who was likely taken with his writings, called on Frederick Douglass to advise him. I just want to take a moment here; a guy who was enslaved 1/2 his life goes on to work for the Federal Government?! That's just BAD ASS. Considering his resume of not mincing words, I imagine he gave the President a lot to think about; much like this epic rap battle between Thomas Jefferson & Douglass.

I hope this brief look into Frederick Douglass was as fruitful for you as it was for Karthik & I to look into his life for a few minutes. As the world faces the ongoing consequences of the war against terrorism, it's important for America to keep in mind what the country has achieved when it comes to addressing issues that touch on civil liberties. The terrorists hate the ideals we stand for and terror is the best weapon they have to make us give up our ideals.


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