DOUGLASS, FREDERICK Generally recognized as being the leader of his race during the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1817. When he was eight years old, he became a house servant (slave) to Hugh Auld in Baltimore. Assisted by Auld's wife (much to Auld's chagrin) and by a number of white playmates, Douglass learned to read and write. In 1833, Douglass was returned to his original owner's plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore as a field hand. It was at this point that he became rebellious and, following a number of floggings at the hands of a professional slave-breaker, determined to escape the chains of bondage by running off to the North. Borrowing a free black seaman's identification papers and clothing, Douglass engineered his escape in 1838 by traveling in disguise to New York. Once in the North, Douglass became quite active in antislavery and abolitionist activities. He moved to Massachusetts in 1840. As the result of his constant attendance at abolitionist meetings and the manner in which he spoke out at these meetings, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society hired Douglass as an agent and lecturer in 1841. As a former slave, Douglass was able to provide his audiences with first-hand accounts of the institution, thereby enhancing his own effectiveness as an orator and abolitionist. He soon became widely known and respected throughout the North as the foremost black voice of the abolitionist movement.
As a fugitive slave, Douglass risked reenslavement when, in 1845, he published his Narrative, a personal account of his own experiences as a slave. For safety, he moved to England following the publication of the Narrative. While in England, Douglass was befriended by British abolitionists, who arranged for a lecture-tour. Lecturing on the evils of slavery as well as on the subject of women's rights, he soon earned enough money to return to the United States in 1847 to purchase his freedom. Shortly thereafter, Douglass began the publication of a newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester, New York. Renamed Frederick Douglass's Newspaper in the early 1850's, it was one of the most influential black newspapers during the antebellum period and was in large part responsible for the recognition Douglass received as the chief spokesman of his people.
A long-time personal friend of John Brown, Douglass was suspected of complicity in Brown's abortive raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Although no direct evidence existed to substantiate the charge and notwithstanding the fact that he had refused to become involved in the Harpers Ferry affair, Douglass temporarily fled to Canada for his safety.
During the Civil War, Douglass played an active role in persuading President Lincoln to utilize black troops for the Union Army. Closing his newspaper, he devoted his full time to the recruitment of black soldiers. The celebrated 54th and 55th Massachusetts Negro Regiments were in large part made up of blacks influenced by Douglass's recruitment efforts. Following the war, he became a champion of African-American civil rights and an effective Republican orator. In 1871, he was appointed to the territorial legislature of the District of Columbia. Subsequently, Douglass became U. S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, a position he held from 1877 to 1881. In 1881, President Garfield appointed him Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. In the following year, his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, appeared. The final distinction of his distinguished career occurred when, between 1889-91, he served as American minister and consul general in Haiti. Frederick Douglass died in the District of Columbia on February 20, 1895.