In this video for Crash Course, Clint Smith provides a biography of Frederick Douglass. The video is stunningly animated and thoughtfully put together. This is a great resource for older students to learn about this important American leader and is specifically valuable during Black History Month.
Born Fredrick Bailey in 1817 or 1818 in Maryland. His mother was an enslaved woman and his father was most likely his mother’s enslaver. For the first few years of his life, Douglass lived on a different plantation than his mother, rarely seeing her. At the age of 7, his mother passed and his grandmother continued to raise him. The video covers the terrible reality of family separation. Smith includes quotes and other primary sources to illustrate these facts.
As a child, Douglass was taught the basics of reading by the wife of one of his enslavers. Unfortunately, these lessons did not continue for long. His enslaver but a stop to the lessons deciding that if Douglass knew how to read, there would be no justification for him to remain a slave. The foundation he learned from this woman was enough. Douglass improved his reading on his own and then went on to teach other enslaved people to read.
He later would go on to write many things. One, impactful story, was his first-hand account of fighting back against a “slave-breaker.” This man’s job was to “break” enslaved people that were considered disobedient and disruptive. After months of taking relentless abuse from this man, Douglass defended himself. The man never touched Douglass again. This experience led Douglass to become determined to be free.
During his quest for freedom, he met a free woman that would change his life. His future wife, Anna Murray Douglass. She helped him acquire a suitable disguise that allowed him to escape to New York City. There he gained his freedom and a wife. Anna further went on to support Douglass by financially providing for their family until Douglass was able to establish his career. Without her, he never would have been able to accomplish the amazing things he did.
They soon moved to Massachusetts where Douglass began to publically proclaim the realities of the lives of slaves. He helped open the eyes of people to the importance of abolishing slavery altogether. His speeches impacted many powerful white people and helped institute a change. William Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist, was particularly moved by Douglass’s words and recruited him to work for his newspaper, The Liberator.
While working at The Liberator, Douglass would write his first book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book was so extraordinary, some people questioned if a former enslaved person could have the capacity to write it. But that did not deter Douglass. He used his words to increase the conversation about slavery all over the country.
In 1847, Douglass joined forces with Martin Delany, another abolitionist, black nationalist, and also physician. Together they formed The North Star, a liberationist newspaper. This publication allowed Douglass to address the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850. This act threatened to destroy the freedom of all Black people in America, fugitive or not.
Strengthened by his religion, Douglass continued to fight for the freedom of all enslaved people. He even urged President Abraham Lincoln to allow Black people to fight in the civil war. He believed this would show the country the commitment Black people had to the US. Because of his efforts, Lincoln eventually enacted the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
After the war, Douglas went on to serve in political appointments. He was the President of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, the United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, and Minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. He also created the newspaper, New National Era.
Douglass’s writings continue to be wonderful primary sources for understanding the issues of his time. They also stand up to valuable reading today. His work overall was vital for the freeing of enslaved people and is definitely worthy of celebrating not only during Black History Month but all year long.
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