Born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, Fred Bailey would escape his chains of slavery in 1838 and become Frederick Douglass, one of the most notable men of the 19th century and the ideal of an American self-made man.
The figure that we now know as Frederick Douglass was born in 1818. The site of his birth, Holme Hill Farm, was located in Tappers Corners, on the western shores of the Tuckahoe River, near Cordova in Talbot County.
Local legend has long stood that young Fred belonged to the Lloyds of Wye House. This is simply untrue. Fred, his grandmother and his mother were owned by the Anthony family. Aaron Anthony, the patriarch of this clan, worked as chief overseer of the Lloyd farms, and his main place of residence was the small house now known as the Captain's House at the Wye plantation. Fred spent the early years of his life at Anthony’s secondary residence, Holme Hill Farm. Frederick was raised by his grandmother, Betsy; his mother had been "rented out" to another farm farther north on the Shore. Betsy was a strong and independent woman, a female figure (among several others) who would influence Frederick's deep lifelong respect for women. She was a slave woman, married to a free black man, who was allowed, outside of her regular daily duties, to earn her own living by cultivating vegetables and hand-crafting seine nets for fishing.
When Frederick was 6, the order was given that Betsy was to take Frederick to live at Wye House, fully separating him from his grandmother and the only home he had ever known. She walked him the 12 miles to Wye, and there left him in the care of Aunt Katy, Aaron Anthony's cook. Frederick lived in a kitchen closet for 18 months and, during his stay, began to understand more clearly the slave station to which he had been born. Certain events at Wye House, which he would later detail in his three autobiographies, would change his life. His aunt and uncle escaped north, sparking a manhunt and giving the young boy his first ideas of freedom. He witnessed his first beatings, starvation and cruelty, the true stuff of slave narratives and nightmares. But the most important event in young Frederick's life at Wye House was his association with Lucretia Anthony Auld. As Aaron Anthony's daughter, she was technically one of Fred's owners. Yet she was also a kind woman who recognized young Fred's potential and attempted to protect the boy. She arranged for him to be chosen from among 80 other slave children to become a companion for Daniel Lloyd, young master of Wye House. This opportunity allowed Fred to be exposed to the high culture of white society at that time and gave him his first inclination that it was possible to have positive race relations and that he, perhaps, had a purpose in life other than being a slave. Having grown up on the Eastern Shore, where there was a significant population of free African-Americans, young Fred Bailey's first hint of the idea of freedom came early in his life. It did not take long for this remarkable child to begin to question his place in the social order and the existence of this evil thing called slavery.
To Baltimore and Back
Lucretia Anthony Auld, having recognized Fred's amazing potential, arranged for him to leave the Eastern Shore, although she and her family would retain official ownership of him. With Aaron Anthony's health fading, Fred was sent to live with Lucretia's brother-in-law and his family in the Fells Point shipbuilding area of Baltimore. Sophia Auld, his kind new mistress, gave him basic reading skills while teaching her own young son. Fred's lessons were stopped, though, by her husband, Hugh, who believed it was against the law (and the strict social codes) to teach a slave to read. Undaunted, Fred finished teaching himself to read, using old school papers and The Columbia Orator, a textbook on oratory which used many of history and literature's greatest speeches, most of which dealt with the rights of freedom and democracy. This experience would symbolize to Frederick, later in life, the first time he understood, not only the true meaning of freedom, but also the power of words. Through his education and his later conversion to religion, young Frederick galvanized his plan to escape the confines of slavery and live as a free man.
When Aaron Anthony died in October 1826, Frederick spent the next few years of his life being bounced back and forth between Talbot County and Baltimore as the Anthony relatives determined the division of the estate. As he entered his rebellious teenage years, Hugh and Sophia Auld felt unable to care for him any longer and returned him to Talbot County. Lucretia had since died but ownership of Frederick belonged to her husband, Captain Thomas Auld, and his new wife, who lived on Talbot Street in St. Michaels. Auld ran a small store and the post office on Cherry Street and Fred, living in the crowded household, just did not manage to keep out of trouble. After Frederick was caught teaching a Sabbath school to slave men (and the neighbors threatened to shoot him if he weren't brought to task), Frederick was rented out to Covey, a reputed "slave breaker" in McDaniel, and to the Freelands in St. Michaels. While at the Freeland farm, Frederick and five other men plotted to escape in a canoe up the Chesapeake Bay to Pennsylvania. Their plan is discovered and five of them, including Frederick, were brought to jail, dragged from St. Michaels to Easton tied behind horses and jeered at in every hamlet along the way. Thomas Auld left Frederick in jail for a week, anxiously awaiting his fate in fear of being "sold South" as slave dealers from offices on Easton's Federal, Market, and Washington streets came to examine him. Eventually, Thomas Auld paid his bail and sent him by steamboat back to Fells Point to Hugh. Frederick was allowed to return to his job as a caulker in the shipyards, which he had learned during his previous stay, and to keep a small percentage of his wages. It was in Baltimore that Frederick met Anna Murray, a free black woman from the Eastern Shore's Caroline County, living in Baltimore. She encouraged him to seek his freedom and, according to family legend, sold a feather bed to buy his train ticket. Disguised as a sailor, Fred Bailey walked onto a train in Baltimore on September 3, 1838, escaped north to freedom, and became Frederick Douglass.
The Rise to Prominence
In 1839, as the newly emerged Frederick Douglass (an alias chosen from a book he had read) Frederick quickly became a favorite speaker on the abolitionist and anti-slavery circuit, traveling throughout the country and the world to shed light on the horrors of America's "peculiar institution" and the harsh realities of the racial structure. He was a powerful orator and influential political figure, using his personal experiences to give a human face to the sufferings and evils of slavery; when he spoke of beatings, lashings, starvation, and cruelty, he was speaking from his own life experiences. His personal memories and knowledge of the slave experience formed a forceful two-pronged attack on America's racial problems: the slave system in the South and rampant racial prejudice in the North. He was radically different from the rest of the abolitionists of his era, who were, for the most part, upper-class white citizens. Unlike them, he was not just speaking out against a moral public wrong but also against something that he hated personally. He was certainly not the only runaway slave on the abolitionist circuit but, because of his self-training in oratory, he was by far the most powerful speaker. It is interesting to note that a good share of his public speaking career occurred while he was still legally enslaved and therefore subject to capture and return to slavery. It was not until 1848, after several years of active and prominent antislavery work in America and Europe, that a handful of British admirers raised £150 to buy his freedom. After the Civil War and the emancipation, Douglass continued to tour the country speaking out in favor of equal rights, the importance of education for African Americans, fair employment and against prejudice, lynchings, "Jim Crow" and other forms of oppression.
Life Up North
After Douglass' escape, he eventually made Rochester, New York, his home. This small but thriving western New York city was right in the middle of the hotbed of abolitionist activities. Douglass lived in Rochester for 16 years, publishing an abolitionist newspaper named The North Star (although it would change names several times over the years). And Douglass, like fellow Eastern Shore runaway and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, used his freedom and influence to assist his brothers and sisters in bondage; he sheltered and aided thousands of runaway slaves as "stationmaster" for the westernmost terminus of the Underground Railroad, the last stop on the road to Canada.
Orator Turned Author
Douglass, as he had discovered in his speaking engagements, was able to put a human face on slavery, using his own slave experiences to awaken white Americans to the evils of prejudice and discrimination. Throughout his life, memories of his own whippings, beatings, and basic denigration as a slave and as a free black man were included in his oratory and published works as tools to abolish slavery and encourage racial equality.
Echoes of Douglass' spoken words appear in his written works frequently. In addition to his numerous transcribed speeches, Douglass authored three autobiographies, all of which are still considered essential readings in 19th-century history. In many scholars' opinions, Douglass used his written words as extended oratory, fiery and poetic, to influence people to think as he did. Thus the caveat should be issued to all historians that these works need to be read carefully and critically, as they are all tools of extended oratory, aimed at specific audiences and delivering a certain message to sway people's opinions.
The Social Conscience
As his prominence grew, so did his sense of public responsibility and Douglass became one of the major political and civil rights activists of the 19th century, using peaceful moral persuasion and fiery oratory instead of violence. Against many odds, Douglass worked tirelessly for the equal treatment of all races and genders and joined several influential political and social movements. He was one of the few men who attended the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. He fought for the right for black men to serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, believing that true equality included the right to go to war alongside white soldiers, especially in the battle to end slavery.
After the war, Douglass was sent by President Andrew Johnson to serve as a political delegate in the Reconstruction South to oversee the process, to protect the rights of newly freed slaves, and to work toward black suffrage. He spoke out frequently in support of equal employment and social opportunities and against lynchings, discrimination and "Jim Crow." He was one of the earliest proponents of nonviolence and peaceful protest.
A Politician, an Entrepreneur, and a Celebrity
In the second half of his life, Douglass threw his hat into the political arena, becoming one of the few nonwhite politicians of his time, in an era when that was unheard of. He served as the United States Marshal for the District of Columbia (which was the first ever Senate appointment for an African-American), he was the Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti, and he was the Equal Rights Party nominee for Vice President of the United States in 1872.
Douglass was an entrepreneur, investing in several enterprises, especially those that would benefit the African-American community, including low-income housing developments in his old neighborhood in Fells Point (named Douglass Place) and at Highland Beach, a summer resort community for African-Americans outside of Annapolis.
Douglass was also a popular national and international celebrity. By the end of his life, he could proudly claim to have served as adviser, political ally and friend to six presidents, including Abraham Lincoln; abolitionists John Brown, Gerrit Smith, and William Lloyd Garrison; women's rights activists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott; and authors Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
A Fondness for the Eastern Shore
In the midst of all his fame and celebrity, he never lost his love for Maryland and the Eastern Shore. He would make four return trips to Talbot County over the next 40 years. In June of 1877, he returned to St. Michaels to make peace with Captain Thomas Auld, whom he had bitterly (and, as he admitted then, unfairly) denounced in his abolitionist newspaper. In November of 1878, he returned to Easton as a guest of the Talbot County Republican Party, to make speeches at two African Methodist Episcopal churches and to a mixed audience in the main courtroom in the Court House. During this trip he also made a pilgrimage to Tappers Corner to try to find his grandmother's cabin and his birthplace. Unfortunately, the cabin was gone. In June 1881, Douglass returned to Wye House for the first time since his boyhood, and was received by the then-owner's 18-year-old son and given a glass of wine in the house. And, on his final trip in March of 1893, he was reportedly in Talbot County to examine possible retirement homes. Up to his death in 1895, Douglass never lost his fondness for the landscape, culture and community of the Eastern Shore.
A Man of Historical Importance
Frederick Douglass is now considered a major historical figure. Thousands of scholarly and popular works for adults and children are devoted to the life, beliefs and personality of Frederick Douglass; a major paradigm shift in the study of history over the last 30 years has allowed not only for the study of an African-American man but also the admission that he was, in fact, a major contributor to life and society in the 19th century. There are numerous museums and historic sites dedicated to his life and work, including those in his adopted hometowns of Baltimore, Rochester and Washington, D.C. The name of Frederick Douglass can be found on schools, parks, libraries and other public buildings in almost every community in this country.
Why is he considered so historically important? First, Douglass is one of the earliest celebrated minorities, one of the few who was recognized and acclaimed even in his own time. Second, Frederick Douglass is the ultimate self-made man. As a society, we continually revere the person who can rise from low beginnings to achieve great heights, and Douglass, rising from the ultimate rags of slavery to the riches of fame and political stature, is the perfect example of the American ideal. And, last, Douglass' life and his battles represent many of the most important and socially significant issues in American history and especially in the rapidly changing society of the 19th century. The struggles that defined Douglass' life and the firm belief he held in the equality of all humans remain relevant and significant today.
Rising from the harsh and bitter realities of his childhood as a Talbot County slave, Frederick Douglass grew to be a noted orator, writer, publisher, politician, entrepreneur, political activist, national celebrity and historical figure. He left an indelible mark on the social, economic and political landscape of the 19th century, and will forever stand as one of Talbot County's most important native sons.
Frederick Douglass Driving Tour of Talbot County
THS is pleased to present a self-guided driving tour of 14 sites related to Frederick Douglass' life in Talbot County. The sites chronicle many of the critical moments in Douglass' life, both as a slave and later as a free man. Visitors will visit Tappers Corners, Cordova, Unionville, St. Michaels and Easton as they experience the county through Frederick Douglass' eyes. The map is free to visitors to the museum. Copies of the tour may be mailed. A donation to THS is appreciated for this service. For more information, email info@TalbotHistorical.org or call 410-822-0773.
THS thanks the Talbot County Office of Tourism, the Town of Easton and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln: A Relationship in Language, Politics, and Memory. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001.
Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time. Boston, 1892.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Boston, 1845.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York, 1855.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1990.
Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
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