Frederick Douglass was a former slave in the United States who lived an extraordinary life – one worthy of a best-selling autobiography. His list of accomplishments were utterly astonishing when one considers his background and the challenges he faced as an African American living throughout the 19th century.
Douglass was a respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader and a presidential consultant – astounding considering he never received a formal education.
Here is a list of 10 amazing facts about the social reformer.
1. He taught himself how to read and write
As a slave, Douglass remained illiterate throughout most of his childhood. He was not allowed to read and write as plantation owners considered education to be dangerous and a threat to their power. a young Douglass, neverthless, took matters into his own hands, using his time on the street running errands for his owner to fit in reading lessons.
As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he’d carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white children in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.
2. He helped other slaves become literate
Being able to read and write – and later producing three autobiographies – Douglass (then with ‘Bailey’ as his surname) taught his fellow slaves to read the New Testament of the Bible, to the ire of slave owners. His lessons, which sometimes included up to 40 people, were broken up by local mobs who felt threatened by his work to enlighten and educate his fellow slaves.
3. He fought a ‘slavebreaker’
At the age of 16, Douglass fought Edward Covey, a farmer with the reputation of being a ‘slavebreaker’. When farmers had a troublesome slave, they sent them to Covey. In this instance however, Douglass’ fierce resistance forced Covey to cease his violent abuse. This scuffle changed Douglass’ life.
“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
4. He escaped from slavery in a disguise
In 1838, with the help and money from the free-born African American, Anna Murray (his future wife), Douglass escaped from slavery dressed as a sailor procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man.
He would later write:
“I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil”
5. He took his name from a famous poem
Arriving in NYC as Bailey, Frederick took the surname Douglass after asking fellow abolitionist Nathaniel Johnson for a suggestion. Johnson, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Lady in the Lake’, suggested that of one of the poem’s protagonists Continuing the Scottish literary connection, Douglass was a fan of Robert Burns, visiting Burns’ Cottage in 1846 and writing about it.
6. He travelled to Britain to avoid re-enslavement
Becoming an anti-slavery lecturer in the years after 1838, Douglass suffered a broken hand in 1843 when he was attacked in Indiana during the ‘Hundred Conventions’ tour.
To avoid re-enslavement (his exposure grew with publication of his first autobiography in 1845), Douglass travelled to Britain and Ireland, giving abolitionist speeches. While there, his freedom was bought, allowing him to return to the US as a free man in 1847.
7. He advocated women’s rights
Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, speaking to say it was self-evident that everyone should have the vote. He was an ardent defender of women’s rights and would spend much of his time promoting electoral equality across America.
8. He met Abraham Lincoln
Douglass argued both for post-Civil War emancipation and the vote, and recruited African Americans for the Union army; Douglass met with Lincoln – a fellow Burns admirer – in 1863 to seek equal terms for African American soldiers, but would remain ambivalent about the President’s attitude to race relations, even after Lincoln’s assassination.
9. He was the most photographed man of the 19th century
There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a “democratic art” that could finally represent black people as humans rather than “things.” He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.
10. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States
As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called “the first female presidential candidate from a major party” during the 2016 election.)
However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it. Although he was never officially a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.