Frederick Douglass: American

A Truly Great American With a Life that Stands on Its Own

Dr. Woodson Ultimately Is Responsible for Black History Month and Started It Partly With Douglass In Mind

Black History Month:  Some time ago, February was designated as Black History Month.   I have mixed emotions about that particular designation.  I think it’s always a good thing to focus attention on history, particularly American history since so many Americans really don’t know a lot about their nation.  I suppose the whole idea rose from the notion that the school system in this country didn’t really mention much about African-Americans except in the context of slavery.  However, I have a problem with a focus on a particular group of Americans. I am not saying that it’s wrong to have such a month; I guess I really think that its too bad that it was a necessity.  You see,  those individuals who are discussed in February are part of American history and I believe that they should be seen simply as Americans because all citizens, past and present are, in my view, my American brother and sister and my fellow American.  Race, religion or ethnicity does not add or dimish their position as an American.  Another thing that bothers me is the a grand oversight.  I’ve gone to some Black History Month presentations and they always quite properly include Dr. Martin Luther  King, Jr.  Sometimes they talk about the contributions of George Washington Carver at the events of which I have attended.  Typically following the discussion of such well-known luminaries, they go off into some modern rappers or sports stars.  If it’s a good presentation, then it will rightfully include Jackie Robinson, but Mr. Robinson sometimes loses out to other Americans whose acheivements really don’t measure up to that of Robinson or Carver and certainly not even in the same neighborhood as Dr. King.  But, almost every time, they leave out someone whom I believe to be one of the most important Americans in our history.  His name is Frederick Douglass and all Americans should know about the man.

Slave Cabin probably not unlike one Douglass shared with his grandmother for a few short years

Even though Douglass often is left out of the Black History month discussion, his life was actually part of the reason why February has the designation.  The foundation of Black History Month dates back to the 1920’s when a Harvard doctoral graduate and former slave chose the month of focus since both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in February and Douglass also died then as well.  Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in February 1818.    Douglass often suggested that his mother, Harriet Bailey, conceived Douglass following the advances of white man who was not his mother’s husband.  It may be for that reason that Douglass did not live with his mother but instead was put in the cabin of his grandmother Besty Bailey by owner, Captain Aaron Anthony.  Even though he lived with his grandmother, it didn’t take long for Douglass to be hired out and so his familial ties were not strong.  In 1826, he went to Baltimore to work and live in the household of Hugh and Sophia Auld.  Sophia was Capt Anthony’s daughter and Douglass lived with the couple for 7 years from 1826 to 1833.  During that time, he watched the Auld’s young son and also was taught to read and write by Sophia…that is until Hugh told her to stop.  But, the seeds were already sewn.

Frederick Douglass Broke the Chains and Headed into History

Douglass continued to teach himself to read and write on his own.   He secretly helped organized schools for slaves.  He resisted his position as a slave.  He tried to escape and was imprisoned for awhile and was sent to a plantation where slaves who needed to be “broken” were sent.  But, he never bowed.  In 1838, he broke his bonds and escaped to New York.  He got married and had children.  He fell in with abolitionists.  He had read books related to oratory and taught himself to make public speeches.  At the age of 23, he gave a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention and caught the attention of many abolitionists included renown abolitionist William Garrison.  Now, Douglass given name was really Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey but he realized that if he were to go on the speaking circuit, then he’d have to change his name to Frederick Douglass.  Afterall, he was officially a fugitive slave and could be returned to slavery.  So, he adopted the last name of Douglass. 

Click on Image For Information Regarding Book that details relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

On two occasions, Douglass fled to Europe to avoid recapture.  On one of his trips, sympathetic Europeans who heard Douglass speak raised money and bought his freedom.  By the time of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass finally was safe in the land of the free and home of the brave.  His autobiography that detailed his life in slavery was a huge hit and the words  he wrote and the words he spoke were significant contributors to the ultimate destruction of slavery.  Not only for the general public, but also for President Abraham Lincoln who consulted with Douglass regarding Lincoln’s policies and thoughts concerning slavery and the emancipation issue.  That included an idea Lincoln had about creating a colony in South America where freed  slaves could live.  Lincoln for a time had  the notion that Blacks and Whites were never intended to live together nor was it possible.  While he did  not believe in equality of the races, Lincoln also felt it was morally wrong for take what was earned from “the sweat of another man’s brow.”  Douglass impressed him as a tremendous mind and thinker and also took into consideration Douglass’ admonition that America was as much his country as it was the President’s.  Remember, Lincoln was born in the country just 9 years prior to Douglass.  Lincoln knew that Douglass had a very good and strong point.

Douglass' marriage to Helen (sitting) Was Not Popular with White or Black late 19th century America

Frederick Douglass was a proud man.  He was a tough man.  He was a smart, self taught man and great thinker.  He was bold and fearless.  Not only did he contribute to the rights of  Blacks, he also lent his name and effort to the equality of women.  He even was on the ticket for an early feminist presidential candidate.  Age did not diminish his courage though.  After his first wife died, he married a white, feminist woman and that, he said, brought condemnation and scorn from both Blacks and Whites alike.  His story is absolutely remarkable and one that every American should know and be proud to be able to say that Frederick Douglass was our American brother.  So, as Black History month comes to a close  just remember that the legacy and life of a great American, Frederick Douglass,  deserves as much recognition and acknowledgement as any American.  In my view, there is no other adjective beside “American” is needed to describe Frederick Douglass.  As he did in life, he can stand on his own for  the ages.


10 Responses

  1. This really was an interesting post. I’ve been aware of Douglass as an orator, of course, and of his relationship with Lincoln, but you mentioned several things I simply didn’t know – such as his support of women.

    I grew up among whispers about the abolitionists & underground railroad. JB Grinnell, founder of the town and college of the same name, was quite involved. Our town, only a few miles from Grinnell, was on “the route”, and a house right across the street from ours was used to shelter folks regularly on their way north. I found a couple of photos of the house recently – really only background to snapshots of me at about age 10. I used to play in the basement with my friend who lived there – thinking about it now, I wish I could go back and talk to the old folks in the neighborhood about its history.

  2. F. Douglas, G.W. Carver, B.T. Washington, et al, all Giants. Share your “mixed emotions” about BH month designation. Congress & Presidents ‘designated’ about as much as they spent; don’t think there’s much left for the natives, Irish, Latins, ad infinitum.

  3. I feel the same about everyone. Unless you were born in another country and became naturalized or maybe even have parents who were born in another country, then we are Americans without a hyphen. Frederick Douglass is a great American and should be recognized as such. Period.

  4. I agree, Mr. Symon. Ultimately, speical recognition of one ethnic group is divisive and harms our unity as a nation. We are all Americans and our worth derives from how we live our lives and not from our lineage: That is what being an American is all about in my view. I would hope that with Mr. Obama being elected as our president that we could finally begin to put these issues behind us. Unfortunately though there are many who derive their living from keeping these divisions alive. In do doing, they harm us all including those they are pretending to defend.

  5. In order for African American consciousness to move from the demoralizing shadows of slavery into the light of freedom they would need to build a vision that would give them the hope to participate in the fruits of Democracy.. .The promise of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness inherent in the Declaration of Independence was given to all American citizens We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


  7. this was a great post and thank you. I have to disagree with one point though, and that is all of the post saying that we should just call him an american. First of all I want to say this is not to offend anyone. ok think about it like this there’s allot of subconcious things going on here. Do you believe in Equality, of course you do, in that case please consider, ‘american’ is not superior to any other description, it’s not superior to african or any other, so why not call him african or african-american? is it just a technical issue as in the fact that he was born here, if so then of course I can understand that simple technical fact, but what about the fact that he was a slave by that I mean think about really what it means to be a slave, and enslaved by america, , just think about it for a moment.

    we know that the founding fathers in no way included black people in their definition of america, think about it, does it really make sense to give the name american to someone that the people who made america would not give the name to. no it doesn’t. now allot of you have allot of respect for the word ‘america’, naturally I’ll assume that you have allot of respect for the people who started it, this is the subconcious part. i don’t know you personally so forgive me if I’ve misjudged you, i’m actually not trying to judge anyone here or over this, I’m only trying to objectively make you look at what’s going on here. the same people that came up with ‘america’ came up with ‘(edited by symonsez)’ as a term for use here in america. but you wouldn’t say that he should be called nigger right, of course I know you wouldn’t. this is what I’m getting at, you can’t on one hand reject racism, hatred, racial slurs, and enslavement, and on the other hand celebrate people who you sound like you admire, and lookup too, like you look up to the word ‘america’. it doesn’t make sense.

    so my point is do you really think that fredrick douglas deserves to be called american? some of you earlier said that you think it’s divisive to call him african american but I don’t think it’s divisive at all. I think it’s divisive that the founders of this country called him ‘not human’ that’s divisive but calling him african is not. do you notice that their is this weird collective thinking going on in our country over black people being called african american, collectively we just want black people to call themselves american only , so bad, but do you notice that there is not the same stigma or stress over our collective thinking over asians, jews, latinos, indians, or anybody else, for some reason it’s just the black people that we wish so bad would just be called american and we push that concept all over the place

    my personal opinion is that black people don’t deserve to be called american, what america did to them on top of the law and under the law is a disgrace. honestly if anyone committed those attrocities to you or your family the last thing you would want someone to do is reward your suffering by calling you the name of those that did such horrific things to you. the next time you celebrate a day that honors some one who did the worst things you can do to a human being think about this post, I mean really think about it, and ask yourself why do you celebrate that kind of person on one hand and then celebrate fredrick douglass on the other hand.

    to me most of what I’ve read above is not about equality, there are people expressing the greatness of america under the guise of equality, and it sounds more like america would like to co-op fredrick douglasses greatness and the greatness of him overcoming his experiences, but to be honest america does not deserve that greatness, america was the villian in this story and you want our hero to take the villians name for himself, just like all the slave masters gave their names to their slaves……..I honestly think that is the last thing that african americans should do.

  8. While appreciate the commentary, I must say that in general I do not agree. Many groups of Americans in the past have suffered and risen up and certainly African-Americans do have as much claim to that sad fact as anyone in that regard. However, in my view, it is part of the American experience and American history, warts and all. It is why we are a melting pot. E-Pluribus Unum. Out of many, One. When someone is my friend, I do not use an adjective. When someone is my brother or sister, I do not use an adjective. When someone is my fellow countryman, that says it all and anything else, in my view, un-necessarily is divisive. The only specificity that I need is American. Frederick Douglass is an American who has a wonderful story that deserves to stand alongside the stories of other Americans who have contributed to the progress and greatness of the nation today. Again, while I disagree largely with your assessment, I appreciate your contribution effort.

  9. While we were researching about the famous American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, we found this page.
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  10. Interesting:)

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