Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

Frederick Douglas:
A Monumental Rebuke to Slavery

In the photographs of him as an older man and as depicted in the statue of him that stands in front of Holmes Hall on the campus of Morgan State University, Frederick Douglass looks positively biblical: a striking man with a bushy beard who was a giant of his time; a man whose life stands as a rebuke to the evils of slavery in which he was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1817.

     This great American was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey at Tuckahoe, around twelve miles from Easton in Talbot County, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unknown white father. His life is well documented in his own writings. The first version of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. . . . appeared in 1845, seven years after he escaped from slavery on a northbound train from Baltimore to New York City in 1838.

     The Narrative proved an instant best seller, selling 30,000 copies in its first five years. Its sales even outstripped Henry Thoreau's On Walden Pond. Douglass's first autobiography was followed by My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). The last-named book was republished in a revised edition in 1892, three years before his death on February 20, 1895 at his home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia. Washington. D.C., which is today a museum to his life.

     The third autobiography sold poorly, probably because the war against slavery had been won and the former abolitionists had lost interest in the lot of the black race. The book is important, though, for his firsthand reminiscences of leading pre-Civil War abolitionists such as John Brown and Harriett Beecher Stowe. It is also important for his expressions of concern about abuses to African American civil and human rights in the later years of the nineteenth century.

     In his reminiscences, Douglass has much to say about his early life in Baltimore. In 1826, the year after his mother died, he was sent by his master Thomas Auld. to live with Auld's brother Hugh and his wife Sophia. He received first lessons in reading from Mrs. Auld,. and he worked for them as a family servant and errand boy.

     After returning to Talbot County in 1833 to work for Thomas Auld. he was sent bick to Baltimore in 1836 to learn the ship caulking trade in the shipyards of' Fells Point. Although Fells Point at this date teemed with free blacks, and the city of Baltimore had become the North's free black capital, Douglass was still a slave.

     In the 1892 edition of the Life and Times of Frederick Douqlass, he wrote of being roughed up by four mechanics who resented blacks. free and slave, working in the shipyards. He recalled. "they came near killing me, in broad daylight. One came in front, armed with a brick: there was one at each side and one behind. ... I was struck on all sides, and while I was attending to those in front I received a blow on my head from behind, dealt with a heavy handspike...." One of the men "planted a blow with his boot on my left eye, which for a time seemed to have burst my eyeball. . . ."

     Douglass survived the beating, face covered in blood, his eye completely closed ---and his four tormenters made their escape. Douglass said "no fewer than fifty white men stood by and saw this brutal and shammeful outrage."

     In his 1892 autobiography, he revealed the details of his escape from slavery. He jumped on the train leaving Baltimore when it was already in motion in order to evade being examined and arrested. He had dressed as a sailor to take advantage of "the kind feeling that prevailed in Baltimore. . . 'towards those who go down to the sea in ships.' . . . I had on a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion, carelessly and loosely about my neck. My knowledge of ships and sailors' talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to crosstrees, and could talk sailor like an 'old salt' "

     Douglass had obtained from a friend papers constituting "a sailor's protection" with an American eagle at its head, but describing a man much darker than himself. As the train sped north toward Havre de Grace, the conductor came to the "Negro car" to collect the tickets.

     The conductor said, "'I suppose you have your free papers?' To which I answered, 'No, sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me.' 'But you have something to show that you are a free man, have you not? Yes, sir,' I answered; 'I have a paper with the American eagle on it, that will carry me round the world.' With this I drew from my deep sailor's pocket my seaman's protection.... The merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare and went on about his business."

     Douglass had escaped detection, but he was still not home free. He admitted, "The heart of no fox or deer, with hungry hounds on his trail, in full chase, could have beaten more anxiously than did mine from the time I left Baltimore till I reached Philadelphia."

     After his escape to the north, he harbored no illusions about the attitudes toward blacks of even those whites who avowed the cause of abolitionism. He told a story of a white woman at a revival who claimed to have visited heaven in a trance. Asked "if she saw any black folks in heaven," she replied after some hesitation, "Oh! I didn't go into the kitchen."

     In the 1890's, as lynchings of blacks increased in the South, the aging Douglass spoke out eloquently against racism. His lecture, "The Lessons of the Hour," was published in pamphlet form in Baltimore in 1894. Douglass's concluding words are as apt to today as when he spoke them:

     "Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your [race] problem will be solved; and whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have .foes without, or foes within, whether there, shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of complaint or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever."

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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