Black History Month

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February of 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. He was raised by his grandparents and aunt, only seeing his mother five times before her death. During this time, he was exposed to the degradations of slavery witnessing first hand brutal whippings and spending most of his time cold and hungry.

When he was 8, he was sent to Baltimore to live with a ship carpenter named Hugh Auld. There he learned to read and was introduced to the words abolition and abolitionist. “Going to live at Baltimore,” Douglass would later say, “ laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity”. Douglass spent 7 relatively comfortable years in Baltimore before being sent back to the country where he was hired out to a farm run by a brutal “slave breaker” named Edward Covey. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was broken in body, soul and spirit.

On January 1, 1836, he made a resolution that he would be free by the end of the year. He planned an escape, but was jailed after his plan was discovered. Two years later, on September 3, 1838, while working in Baltimore, he fled. The following day he arrived in New York City. Several weeks later, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name Frederick Douglass. He joined various organizations in New Bedford including a black church. He started attending abolitionists meetings and subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal, The Liberator. In 1841, Douglass saw Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society’s annual meeting. Garrison was impressed and mentioned him in The Liberator. Several days later, Douglass gave a speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket.

In 1845, Douglass wrote and published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 3 years later, after a speaking tour of England, Ireland and Scotland, Douglass published the first issue of the North Star, a four page weekly out of Rochester, New York. Ever since Douglass met Garrison in 1841, the white abolitionist leader had been his mentor. But the views of Garrison and Douglass eventually diverged. Garrison represented the radical end of the abolitionist spectrum. He denounced churches, political parties and even voting. He also believed that the U.S constitution was a pro-slavery document. After his tour of Europe and the establishment of his newspaper, Douglass’ views began to change. He became more of an independent thinker and more pragmatic. In 1851, Douglass announced at a meeting in Syracuse, New York, that he did not assume the constitution was a pro-slavery document and that it could even “be wielded in behalf of emancipation” especially where the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction. Douglass also did not advocate the dissolution of the Union, since it would isolate slaves in the South. This led to a bitter dispute between Douglass and Garrison that would last into the Civil War.

In the election year of 1960, Douglass first campaigned for the candidate from the newly formed Constitutional Union Party, Gerrit Smith, who was running on a strong anti- slavery platform. A few months before the election, believing Smith couldn’t win, he decided to support Abraham Lincoln – the Republican candidate who was opposed to the spread of slavery into new territories. The two democratic candidates received more votes than anyone else but the division in the party gave the election victory to Lincoln. The President’s address, in March of 1861, was disappointing to Douglass because Lincoln promised to uphold the fugitive slave act and not to interfere with slavery in states where it was already established. His first priority was to preserve the union, not to end slavery.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina. The Fort surrendered a day later. The two sides prepared for battle – the North with its 23 states and a population of 22 million, and the South with 11 states and population of 9 million, including 3.5 million slaves. The North was fighting to preserve the Union and the South was fighting for the right to secede and establish a nation that guaranteed a person’s right to own slaves. Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists felt the war was a battle to end slavery. As the Civil War got underway, Douglass marked out two goals for which he would fight: the emancipation of all slaves in the Confederacy and the Union Border States, and the right of Blacks to enlist in the armies of the North. While battles raged throughout the South, Douglass traveled on the lecture circuit, calling for Lincoln to grant slaves their freedom. With anti-draft riots erupting in northern cities and high battlefield casualties, Lincoln began to realize that stronger actions needed to be taken against the confederacy.

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln read to his Cabinet a draft of an order that would emancipate slaves in the Confederate States. On the night of December 31, 1862, the President issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of the next day all slaves in areas not held by Union troops were free. Slavery was not abolished in the Border States or in already captured areas of the South. Lincoln’s act freed millions of slaves, who fled from their masters and took “freedom road” to areas controlled by Union forces.

Douglass turned his attention next to the struggle of Blacks to be allowed to fight for their freedom. In 1863, Congress authorized black enlistment to the Union army. During the summer of 1863, Douglass met with President Lincoln and expressed his concerns about the way black soldiers were being treated by Union officers and Confederate captors (black soldiers were often shot when captured). President Lincoln did give Douglass some encouragement that changes might be made. However, he was not entirely satisfied with Lincoln’s response. 200,000 Blacks enlisted in the Union Army, ( 3 were Douglass’ own sons). 38,000 were killed or wounded in civil war battles. By the middle of 1864, with the help of black troops (10% of the army was black at this point) the war was slowly turning in favour of the North. Lincoln and Douglass had a second meeting in August of 1864. The President had doubts that the war could be won and he was worried that he might have to sign a peace with the Confederacy that would leave slavery intact. Lincoln asked Douglass to draw up plans for leading slaves out of the South in the event that a Union victory seemed impossible. The evacuation plans that Douglass sent to Lincoln never had to be used. General Sherman troops were marching through the heart of the South leaving a trail of destruction, culminating in September when they burned Atlanta, Georgia to the ground.

The victories allowed Lincoln to win the November election easily. Douglass attended Lincoln’s inaugural address, however, government officials refused to allow Douglass to attend the evening reception in the White House. When Douglass sent word of this refusal to the President, he was quickly ushered into the ceremony. The Civil War ended April 9, 1865 (last shots fired June 22, 1865). On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Boothe. He died the next day. Frederick Douglass went on to become American Consul General to Haiti. On February 20 1895, Frederick Douglass died in Washington D.C.

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