In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass vividly described his remarkable journey to freedom. Born Frederick Bailey in Maryland to Harriet Bailey and an unknown white father, he was separated from his mother as an infant.
“From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.”
He initially rebelled by teaching himself, and then other enslaved people, to read and write. Transferred to a cruel slaver as punishment, Douglass was regularly whipped until, aged 16 he physically confronted his assailant, who never dared to accost him again. At 20 he managed to escape with the aid of his future wife, Anna Murray, but was not legally free for another nine years, when British abolitionists helped to buy his freedom in 1846.
Douglass quickly rose to the fore of the anti-slavery movement, becoming renowned for his powerful oratory and writing.
“I remember the chain, the gag, the bloody whip, the deathlike gloom overshadowing the broken spirit of the fettered bondman, the appalling liability of his being torn away from wife and children, and sold like a beast in the market”.
He continued to face adversity, and was beaten savagely by a pro-slavery mob in 1843, sustaining a lifelong injury. Douglass also became a passionate advocate of women’s suffrage, and was the only African American to attend the first American women’s rights convention in 1948.
Throughout the Civil War Douglass continued to push for abolition and suffrage for African Americans, and following the conflict held various governmental positions; speaking to his public significance, Douglass was the 19th Century’s most photographed American. He remains a potent symbol today of the struggle against inequality.
"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."