Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight has had me in thrall since December of last year. The author’s style is not to blame for the length of time I spent with Douglass. His style is not obscure, linguistically dense, or pedantic. Frederick Douglass’s life, however, was lived with a passionate density and a dedication to freedom and equality for all Americans of African Descent. It was a life richly lived and in no way ordinary.
How did Douglass make his way from slavery to national fame, treasured by many and hated by some. He believed in the value of hard work and telling an important story, at even the cost of his own health sometimes. In the days before there were radios, getting out a message took more effort, more arduous travel, often by rail, in all kinds of weather, than we can even imagine. How did Frederick Douglass learn to read and speak to crowds? It was illegal to teach slaves to read. It was said that once a slave could read he became useless as a slave. These masters, who liked to argue that the Negro race was inferior in intelligence, were afraid to teach a slave to read and write, to make a hash of their white supremacy claims, which, as Blight admits, linger stubbornly to this day.
Douglass, with some help from his master’s son’s wife, Sophie Auld in Baltimore, the Bible, some friendly white boys in Baltimore, and a book he poured over called The Columbian Orator, taught himself to read and speak, as an orator speaks, with power and effective rhetoric while he was still a slave. Eventually Douglass (born Fred Bailey) escaped north and fell into the helpful hands of some very active abolitionists, who dedicated themselves to speaking and writing against using any humans as slaves. He renamed himself after Clan Douglas from Walter Scott’s poem Lady of the Lake, because he liked their strength, and added an ‘s’ to make the name his own, says Blight. Late in the slave days of Douglass his master died and his estate was broken up. Since slaves were considered property all the master’s slaves were put on display and examined by other slave owners, purchased and hauled away like furniture, or tillers. While Douglass already understood that slavery was wrong, this atrocity imprinted graphically on his mind, along with a memory of being allowed in to visit his mother before she died. Frederick Douglass never knew his birth day and when slavery was done he went to see the Aulds who remained, but no one could enlighten him.
I will not tell you all the names of every abolitionist Douglass met because he knew all of his contemporaries. He was in demand as an orator who used Biblical cadences and even humor to insist that no man should be owned by any other man, that only freedom for all would suit the idealism of the American republic. There were often disputes among abolitionists about whether to advocate peaceful protest or a more robust activism so friends were made and lost and even Douglass changed his views on this, but, even so, Douglass’s focus on freedom and equality for all of the people being held as slaves propelled him through the next 6o years, with time out for a few jobs in the government after the Civil War. Douglass traveled and spoke constantly, first widely in the North and Midwest sections of America, passed from church to church and abolitionist to abolitionist for his own safety, in England, and Ireland, and Scotland (where slavery was already illegal), and again in America.
He spoke up before the Civil War, all throughout the Civil War when he also fought to have black soldiers who would fight for their own emancipation, and he could not rest in the disheartening aftermath of emancipation. He became owner/publisher/writer of a newspaper which included articles from most of the other activists in the anti-slavery movement. He wrote books, autobiographical in content, still in print today and still popular. He struggled constantly to support himself and his family. His wife Anna (Murray), who was born free, and his young children kept a home base that Douglass rarely got to enjoy. He was propelled by his mission and could not sit and rusticate.
Many wealthy abolitionists contributed to keeping Douglass’s newspaper alive and in that way helped support his family. Eventually he moved his family to Rochester, NY. Anna’s garden in Rochester was extensive, productive, and apparently lovely. Some of Douglass’s best friends in the cause and financial supporters were female activists. At least two of these women spent time staying at the Douglass home in Rochester. Ottilie Assing a well-educated German woman, seemed to have been enamored of Douglass and spent summers at the Douglass homes in both Rochester and later in the family home near Washington, DC. Blight found no descriptions of any untoward intimacies that survived, although it is possible to imagine that there may have been some, perhaps when Douglass went to stay at times with Ottilie and her circle. Anna Douglass left no clues about how she felt about these visitors, but Ottilie sometimes complained about Anna.
There is such a wealth of detail in Blight’s biography that if you really want to know Frederick Douglass you need to read Blight’s well-documented book. I will say that I became very nervous about what would happen when Reconstruction was undermined by the assassination of Lincoln (who Douglass knew personally and who he was able to influence and educate about the true conditions of slavery) and the rapid acceptance of former slave states back into the Union. I knew what atrocities ensued and I dreaded watching Douglass’s heart break when emancipation became violent racism. But Douglass was a man of his times and more pragmatic than me. He hated the violence, but he tried to keep the nation on a path to granting equality to freed slaves. He celebrated the 15 th Amendment with a Jubilee even as he grieved the bloodshed, the terrorism, and the lynching that turned the South into a death trap for black folks who tried to exercise their new right to vote. So many battles still to be fought.
But in his final years, even as Frederick Douglass traveled and spoke as often as his health would allow, even as he faced the disapproval from both citizens and family when he married (after the death of Anna) a younger white woman, Helen Pitts, who he had worked with in Washington, even as he represented the federal government in Haiti, – he won the fame and reverence that he had earned in a lifetime of dedication to fighting for the freedom he did not have, for both himself and every black man. Douglass knew women who fought for the rights of women. He knew Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but he was not distracted. The needs of slaves were more pressing in his mind and I don’t think most of us would argue with this focus. When Douglass died in 1895, “the Hutchinson Family Singers, who had many times appeared with Douglass, sang ‘Dirge for a Soldier’: ‘Lay him low, lay him low/Under the grasses or under the snow: /What cares he? He cannot know./Lay him low, lay him low.” – page 753.
I will say that I did not actually read this book; I studied it. The author’s words were so compelling and so impelling that I could not think of rephrasing them. The way the story is told is just as essential to understanding Frederick Douglass as the facts themselves are. It was a pleasure to spend these many hours with Mr. Douglass and the travails and joys of his life. I was told he was a great man, now I know why he was considered a great man. Frederick Douglass would possibly understand the refresher course we are experiencing in racism in America because it has never really been put to rest. But he was enough of an optimist to hope that this might be the last hurrah for white supremacy.