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Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

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The Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance, in honor of Black History Month, are reviving the daily special series devoted to sharing the legacies and stories of the sheroes, heroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage. This series was created in 2017 and will add 13 NEW articles this year. In addition to these daily newsletters all February long, this series also incorporates daily social media posts; an interactive calendar; and, website blog posts to spread the word broadly.


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This article is written by Caitlyn Caitlyn Arnwine (formerly Caitlyn Cobb) in 2017 and updated in 2018. All the sources are linked throughout the article in green, with a source list at the bottom of this article.

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Today, February 3rd, 2024 we honor Frederick Douglass. What would a series dedicated to those who advanced Black suffrage be without mention of Frederick Douglass, the man who advocated for suffrage for ALL African-Americans, regardless of gender?


Another Unknown Origin


Yet, again, as we found in the cases of Paul Cuffe Sr. and Prince Hall, Frederick Douglass’ exact birth date and birth year are a matter of speculation. Most sources cite that Frederick Douglass was born around 1818. Most sources will cite his birthday as in February, because later in life, Douglass celebrated his birthday on February 14th. However, it is known that Frederick August Washington Bailey (Douglass’ biological name) was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland. He was owned by Hugh Auld of Baltimore.



Illegal Learning: Douglass’ life enslaved


When Douglass was 12, Hugh’s wife, Sophia, defied the law of the land and taught Douglass the alphabet. Hugh found out and forbade his wife to teach him anything more; however, Douglass continued to learn from White children and others in the neighborhood.


Hugh hired out Douglass to William Freeland, where Douglass taught more than 40 slaves how to read at a weekly church service. Freeland did not stop the lessons himself; but, other plantation owners, armed with clubs and stones, dispersed the congregation permanently.


Douglass was later made to work for Edward Covey, who had a reputation of a “slave breaker”. Covery constantly abused then 16-year-old Douglass to the point of almost psychologically breaking him, until one day Douglass fought back. Covey lost the fight with Douglass, and Covey never beat him again.



What’s right isn’t always legal…


Douglass tried to escape slavery twice before he was successful in running away as a fugitive. He escaped to Massachusetts with the help of his soon-to-be-wife, a free Black woman from Baltimore named Anna Murray, who later joined him in Massachusetts., where the two were married by a former fugitive slave. Although his marriage papers listed him as “Frederick Johnson”, it was here that Douglass was no longer known by his slave name of “Frederick Bailey”, or even the married name of “Frederick Johnson”, but he became best known as “Frederick Douglass”. Being a run-away slave, Douglass had to assume false names to avoid capture, and he took the name “Douglass” “from Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 epic poem ‘Lady of the Lake’”.


But there was another reason for Douglass changing his name: to vote. Under this assumed name of “Douglass”, and while Frederick was in Massachusetts, he went to register to vote, though it is uncertain when Douglass cast his first vote, though it may have been in 1840. Douglass only had his marriage papers on him and a fraudulent “Seaman’s Protection Paper”. Luckily for him, Douglass was in Massachusetts, which allowed some free Black men to vote, so he didn’t get caught and didn’t have to produce anything to prove his identity. In what would now be considered voter fraud, Frederick Douglass enfranchised himself. He and his wife settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts and took the last name of “Douglass” to prevent anyone from discovering that Frederick was a fugitive.


In 1845, Frederick set sail to Liverpool to evade capture and began speaking on the evils of slavery in Ireland and Britain. During this time, Douglass’ British supporters gathered funds and purchased his legal freedom in 1846 for what would have been, at the time, $711 American dollars. He returned to America in 1847 and moved to New York, finally in possession of his legal, official manumission papers.



Suffrage for ALL and to ALL voting rights!


Frederick Douglass became a renowned speaker and voting rights activist, and joined the abolitionist movement. He urged everyone that Black people were HUMANS and therefore deserved rights, such as voting rights, which he held most precious. He didn’t just limit his teachings to fighting for Black men alone- he was always inclusive of Black women. No matter the crowd or the occasion, he always revealed the horrific truths of slavery and pleaded his case as to why ALL deserved suffrage. This article could not do his words justice- so, we’ll let him tell his own story in his own words:


  • ORATION, DELIVERED IN CORINTHIAN HALL, ROCHESTER, BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS, JULY 5TH, 1852. Frederick Douglass is speaking here in celebration of July 4th, and he while he uplifts the occasion in the first half of his speech, he then brings in the reality that July 4, 1776 is not a day that Black people should celebrate since they were not given independence on that day. He implores the “Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society” why he has been asked to speak on a day that does no justice to him. Douglass goes into detail in how Black people are human beings, and even though everyone treated them as less than, that laws and practices by slave-owners themselves showed that they know Black people are human. 


  • What the Black Man Wants, Frederick Douglass, 1865. Spoken before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Frederick Douglas advocated for voting rights in this speech. He refutes the arguments of people questioning why a Black man would want the right to vote; or why Black men didn’t have the intellectual capacity to vote; or why a Black man couldn’t be happy without a vote, since women couldn’t vote either. He lays out how Black men are capable of conducting their own affairs, and are taxed, and should have a say in their government; and, finally, he lays out that it is also wrong to deny women the right to vote on account of their gender, and therefore that is not a valid argument. 



  • Dec. 4, 1888: Letter from Frederick Douglass to Robert Adams. In this letter, Frederick thanks his friend, Robert Adams, for a paper, and says he was glad see him. He goes on to say he is “a good deal disturbed” by the “clamour [sic]” raised from the disenfranchisement of Southern Black people. He denounced the idealism of “negro supremacy” as a reason for disenfranchisement, likening this reasoning to the absurdity of “negroes going to cut their masters throats”.



Other Fun Facts:



  • “On February 20, 1895, [Frederick Douglass] attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Shortly after returning home, Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack or stroke. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.”



To find out more about the life of Frederick Douglass, check out the videos below:

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