By Rev. Dr. William H. Chavis, Jr.

Frederick Douglass was born on February 14(?) 1817 or 1818 as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Tuckahoe Creek, Maryland. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was enslaved. Aaron Anthony was white, his enslaver, and was possibly Douglass’ father.

Douglass grew up enslaved. He received many beatings. As a small boy, his former enslaver’s wife taught Douglass how to read and write, but her husband stopped the reading lessons. He eventually taught himself to read in secret by first reading the Bible. As an avid reader of newspapers, he taught himself how to speak publicly.

As a teenager, he put his faith in the Lord Jesus after hearing a white Methodist minister preach the gospel. He wrote, “I finally found that change of heart which comes by casting all one’s care upon God, and by having faith in Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.” But it was an enslaved person named Charles Johnson who taught him how to pray and walk the Christian life, while Douglass taught Johnson how to read.

Douglass’ thirst for knowledge helped him to escape from slavery. He absconded in 1838 at the age of 20, with the help of a free black lady named Anna Murray, who became his wife on September 15, 1838. They raised five children, two girls and three boys. Their marriage lasted 44 years until her death on August 4, 1882. She was 68 years old.

Douglass married a second time to Helen Pitts in 1884, who was white, and their marriage lasted until he died in 1895. She died in 1903.

He became an eloquent speaker and was considered the best orator of his time. In 1841, he was a spokesman against the evils of slavery for the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society. He was a successful journalist, civil rights leader, women’s rights activist, statesman and was appointed to four federal positions by three Presidents, including minister and consul to Haiti.

He taught himself to speak fluent French, Dutch, and German. He played the violin, sang slave spirituals and old Scottish ballads when he entertained guests at his home in Washington, D.C.

Douglass started a distinguished career as an advocate of four fundamental issues in this order: (1) the end of slavery, (2) the right of Blacks to become citizens of the United States; (3) the right of Blacks to vote and (4) the right of women to vote. He only lived to see the first three of those rights come into fruition when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing all enslaved people in those states, not under the Union Army’s control.

The institution of slavery and the stigma of inferiority based on color became unlawful in 1865 when Congress ratified Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment was approved by Congress in 1868, establishing equality and national citizenship for Blacks. Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 to secure only Black men’s right to vote. Unfortunately, Congress did not approve the right to vote for women, regardless of color, until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.

Douglass died of a heart attack on February 20, 1895, at seventy-seven years old in his home in Washington, D.C. Before he died, Douglass stated the following, “When I escaped from slavery it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question.” Frederick Douglass was indeed a man way ahead of his time.