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Do you dream of changing the course of history forever?
Frederick Douglass did more than dream. He acted.
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818, the property of a prosperous family in the US state of Maryland. Enslaved for life, he was forbidden an education – anything to hamper him from running away. But even as a child, Frederick could be very persuasive: He bribed the indentured servants in his neighborhood with morsels of bread in exchange for lessons on how to read and write.
“Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?" he asked the "hungry little urchins" (his words) who by law would gain their freedom at the age of 21 simply because they were white. Frederick did not understand why they could learn while he, and other blacks, could not. In his teens, he secretly organized classes to educate his fellow slaves, despite the threat of retribution by white men with clubs.
At the age of 20, Douglass risked everything: He borrowed the travel document, and the clothes, of a free black sailor in Baltimore, and hopped on a crowded train headed north. Although he looked nothing like the man pictured in the “free papers,” he managed to make it to the free state of New York.
Heartbroken at leaving his friends and family behind, he used his writing skills and power of persuasion to fight slavery. He released his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, at the age of 27, only to have to flee to Europe to escape vengeful slave hunters who sought to silence him. Admirers raised enough money to buy Douglass’s freedom, allowing him legal return to the US two-years later.
Fiercely intelligent and articulate, Douglass spent the rest of his career lecturing and writing on the evils of slavery, becoming a national celebrity and leader of the movement to abolish the institution once and for all. On August 1, 1863, he became the first black American to enter the White House. He formed a cautious friendship with President Abraham Lincoln, whom Douglass came to trust, although he remained frustrated by the slow pace of change.
When the 13th Amendment to the Constitution finally abolished slavery in 1865, Douglass shifted his activism to expanding civil rights. He was horrified by the rise of institutionalized racism, characterized by lynching and legal discrimination against black Americans, that would come to be known as the “Jim Crow” system. He was also a devoted feminist. In 1848, he was one of the few men to sign the “Declaration of Sentiments” at Seneca Falls, which demanded that women immediately be granted the right to vote. Douglass even ran for vice-president of the United States in 1872, sharing the ticket with the suffragette Victoria Woodhull on a joint-platform of rights for blacks and women.
His last act of rebellion was to marry Helen Pitts in 1884. Helen was white and although she was reared by abolitionists, her family joined most US citizens in opposing racial mixing. Helen and Frederick remained steadfast in their decision, however, and spent eleven happy years together until Frederick passed away at the age of 77.
Frederick Douglass devoted his entire life in an act of rebellion against the idea that black Americans were anything less than free and intelligent human beings. His independence, inner-confidence, determination, and passion challenged both his friends and enemies to see black people as equals.
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