This Day In History: February 14

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Frederick Douglass, a towering figure of American history, is born enslaved as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. He would go on to make a daring escape North and become one of the most famous people in 19th-century America. As a celebrated orator, author and activist, he became a powerful and eloquent voice not only for the abolition of slavery, but for broader human rights.

Shortly after Douglass' mother died when he was eight years old, his enslaver sent him to Baltimore, where he became property of the Auld family. Douglass learned to read there, first from his owner’s sister-in-law Sophia and later on his own. He purchased his first book, a collection of revolutionary writings and speeches, at 12 years old. In 1831, he learned of the abolitionist movement, which further inspired his quest for freedom.  

After being sent back to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to work as a field hand—and being jailed for a failed escape attempt—Douglass was returned to Baltimore, where he met future wife, a freewoman named Anna Murray. On September 3, 1838, with forged papers and a sailor disguise, Douglass escaped via train to freedom in New York City. He and Anna married and moved to Massachusetts.

Douglass would spend the rest of his life working tirelessly to abolish slavery. Through the Anti-Slavery Society of Massachusetts, Douglass (who had changed his name from Bailey in 1838) traveled widely around the country speaking of his experiences in bondage. He became an active member of the Underground Railroad, helping others in their quest to escape to freedom in the North. In 1845, Douglass published his the first of three bestselling autobiographical books, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

To avoid recapture by slave trackers, Douglass and his family moved overseas, where he continued speaking out against slavery. After British admirers raised money to buy his freedom from the Aulds, he and his family returned to America and relocated to Rochester, New York. There, Douglass edited and published an influential Black newspaper called The North Star, later Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and finally Douglass Monthly

Douglass not only became internationally known as a figure of the anti-slavery movement; he becoming the conscience of a nation with orations like his scathing 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, a reminder that independence was at that time enjoyed by only a fraction of the U.S. population. In 1861, when the Civil War erupted, Douglass worked to recruit Black soldiers for the Union and met repeatedly with President Lincoln to advocate for equal pay for Black troops and to prod him toward ending slavery. He continued to publish on the cruelty of slavery after the end of the Civil War, and served as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, among other government appointments. 

Douglass died on February 20, 1895, at age 77.