“My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and His cause is the ever-living now.” F. Douglass
Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
Douglass, Frederick (1808 (?) -1895) Black Leader.
Frederick Douglass was the most important Black American leader of the 19th Century. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, in Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1808, the son of a slave woman, and in all likelihood, her white master. Upon his escape from slavery at age 20, Douglass adopted a new surname from the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake”.
Douglass immortalized his formative years as a slave in the first of three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Written both as antislavery propaganda and as personal revelation, they are universally regarded as the finest examples of the slave narrative tradition and as classics of American autobiography.
Douglass’s public life ranged from his work as an abolitionist in the early 1840s to his attacks on Jim Crow segregation in the 1890s. Douglass lived the bulk of his career in Rochester, N.Y., where for 16 years he edited the most influential Black newspaper of the mid-19th century, called The North Star. Douglass achieved international fame as an orator and as a writer of persuasive power. In thousands of speeches and editorials Douglass levied an irresistible indictment against slavery and racism, provided an indomitable voice of hope for his people, embraced antislavery politics, and preached his own brand of American ideals.
Douglass welcomed the Civil War in 1861 as a moral crusade to eradicate the evil of slavery. Douglass made a major contribution to the intellectual tradition of millennial nationalism, the outlook from which many Americans, North and South, interpreted the Civil War. As a stalwart Republican (the political party of Abraham Lincoln), he was appointed marshall (1877-81) and recorder of deeds (1881-86) for the District of Columbia, and chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti (1889-91).
Douglass had five children by his first wife Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore who followed him out of slavery in 1838. Less than two years after Anna died in 1882, the 63-year-old Douglass married Helen Pitts, his white former secretary, an event of considerable controversy. Thus by birth and by his two marriages, Douglass is one of the South’s most famous examples of the region’s mixed racial heritage.
Douglass never lost a sense of attachment to the South. “Nothing but an intense love of personal freedom keeps us [fugitive slaves] from the South,” Douglass wrote in 1848. Brilliant, heroic, and complex, Douglass became a symbol of his age and a unique American voice for humanism and social justice.
His life and thought will always speak profoundly to the dilemma of being Black in America. Douglass died of heart failure in 1895, the year Booker T. Washington rose to national prominence with his Atlanta Exposition speech suggesting black accommodation to racial segregation.
David W. Blight
North Central College
see also: John Blassingame, et al., The Frederick Douglass Papers, 2 vols. (1979-1982); Philip S. Foner, Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 4 vols. (1955); August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 (1963); Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (1948).
jb signing off 8:35 a.m. July 4, 2015