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(H)our History Lesson: Frederick Douglass’s Life-long Fight for Justice and Equality

This lesson was adapted by Katie McCarthy from the full-length Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan “‘Journey from Slavery to Statesman’: The Homes of Frederick Douglass.” For more information on this topic, explore the full lesson plan.

Grade Level Adapted For:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will be able to....

  1. Differentiate the status of an enslaved person, a free person, and an American statesman before the American Civil War.

  1. Describe different forms of resistance to slavery, including freedom seeking and abolition.

  1. Describe Frederick Douglass’s life and career.

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support an analysis of a primary and secondary source.

  1. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose.

Inquiry Question:

Frederick Douglass owned and lived in this house for the last 14 years of his life. What can we tell about him based on how this building looks?

House on a hill.
Frederick Douglass house in Washington, DC.

Reading:

Background:

In the early 19th century, the economies of the North and South began to go in different directions. In the North’s new industrial economy, slavery was not as profitable as it was in the South, which still relied on farming. As enslaved labor began to decline in the North, northern states abolished the institution. The North became a refuge for freedom seekers. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, southerners continued to enslave about 4,000,000 African Americans. Up until the 13th Amendment, enslaved people sought their freedom through escape.

Black and white abolitionists worked to end slavery and aid people who escaped enslavement. Abolitionists were not afraid to use all means of communication to sway public opinion. Antislavery societies organized lectures and petitions and published newspapers. Despite this work, the Fugitive Slave Law Act of 1850 granted southern slaveowners more legal reach into the North. Life was better for freedom seekers in the North but threat of lawful recapture meant they were not entirely free until after the Civil War, when slavery was outlawed across the country.

Portrait of a man, torso up.
Frederick Douglass,1856. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Content:
Frederick Douglass was born enslaved on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818. He grew up in his grandmother's small cabin. Douglass never knew who his father was and he only saw his mother a few times in his life. While he was still a small boy, his grandmother brought him, under orders, to the master's home at Wye Plantation. This event began Douglass's journey through slavery.

Douglass was very intelligent, but he never went to school. When he lived in Baltimore, the wife of his master started to teach him to read. When her husband found out, he angrily stopped her. After this, Douglass realized education was a key to success and freedom and he continued to teach himself.

Douglass yearned for freedom. As a teenager, Douglass attempted his first escape by canoe from a plantation that had hired Douglass from his owner. He failed and luckily avoided a harsh punishment, but he continued to dream of freedom. Douglass finally escaped in 1838 by boarding a train in Havre de Grace, Maryland, dressed in sailor's clothes and using the pass of a free Black man.

He was not caught. Arriving first in New York City, Douglass continued on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There he adopted a new name, married Anna Murray (whom he had met in Baltimore), and began a new life. While in New Bedford, he realized the privileges and dangers of the life of free Black people in the North. After impressing an audience in Nantucket with his speaking skills, Douglass became a traveling lecturer. He focused on explaining the realities of slavery to his audiences.

He was so well-spoken that many people did not believe he had once been a slave. He had to publish an autobiography with details of his identity to convince them. After the publication in 1845 of the first of Frederick Douglass's three autobiographies, friends encouraged him to take a trip abroad. They were afraid that the publicity might attract the attention of his former owner. While in Great Britain, Douglass became legally free when he inspired supporters to purchase his freedom. Once back in the United States, Douglass continued to speak out against slavery and began publication of his newspaper, The North Star.

Douglass viewed the Civil War as a war for freedom. When war came, Douglass was the leading African American to advise Abraham Lincoln on the need to end slavery and to urge the use of African American troops. Once Lincoln gave permission for their inclusion, Douglass became a recruiter, beginning with his sons.

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass moved to Washington, DC, in the early 1870s. He first settled in Capitol Hill, in the southeast of the district. In 1877, Douglass purchased his final home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, also in the southeast of the district. When Douglass bought the property, it originally took up 9 ¾ acres of land. In 1878, he purchased an additional 5 ¾ acres. A newspaper described his house in the following way:

The residence of Mr. Douglass is in Uniontown, across the Eastern branch. No idea of the place can be given in a small picture. The grounds are fifteen acres in extent, and the house is surrounded by cedars, oaks and hickories and is almost hidden from the street. The building is of brick, two stories, high, in cottage style of architecture, and is very large, having eighteen rooms. A portico runs across the front and the main door is in the centre. The parlors are on each side of the hall. The house is very handsomely furnished and has the appearance of being the home of a cultured, refined gentleman. The library is in the rear of the east parlor. The books number about two thousand volumes and are very valuable. They cover history, poetry, philosophy, theology and fiction…it is a great pleasure to think that this man, whose intellect and energy have been his only capital, is now living in refined opulence instead of suffering in bondage as the property of ignorance, idleness and superstition.1

Cedar Hill became the headquarters for Douglass's advocacy work. It was also the final home for both himself and his first wife Anna, who passed away in 1882. In 1884, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white women's rights activist and the daughter of abolitionists. Douglass ran and owned the New National Era, a paper "devoted to the defence [sic] and enlightenment of the newly emancipated and enfranchised people."2 He continued to speak publicly for the civil rights of all Americans. In 1886, Douglass gave the following speech on the 24th anniversary of emancipation in Washington, DC:

The American people have this lesson to learn: That where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.3

While in D.C., Douglass was appointed as the first African American in several government positions -- United States marshal (1887) and recorder of deeds (1881) in Washington, DC. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Douglas as the U.S. minister to Haiti. Despite the legal recognition given to African American men, Douglass continued to face prejudice based on his race. He wrote about the reaction to his appointment as a U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia:

It came upon the people of the District as a gross surprise, and almost a punishment; and provoked something like a scream—I will not say a yell—of popular displeasure. As soon as I was named by President Hayes for the place, efforts were made by members of the bar to defeat my confirmation before the Senate. All sorts of reasons against my appointment, but the true one, were given, and that was withheld more from a sense of shame, than from a sense of justice.4

Throughout Douglass's remarkable life, he passionately spoke out against slavery and other social injustices. He died a respected statesman, orator, journalist, and author.

Reading Discussion Questions:

  1. How did Douglass try to escape the first time? How and when did he successfully escape from Maryland?

  1. What did he do once he escaped from slavery? If you had been in his position, do you think you would been so outspoken and risked recognition? Can you think of a reason why Douglass might not have wanted to publish the details of his escape until after the Civil War?

  1. When did Douglass move to Washington, DC? When did he move into Cedar Hill?

  1. Does the newspaper description of his house surprise you? Why or why not? Why do you think the author chose to talk about Douglass's library?

  1. What does the description of Cedar Hill tell us about Douglass’s life?

  1. What does the response to Douglass's appointment as a U.S. Marshal say about the perception of African Americans in the United States after the Civil War?

  1. Name a few of Douglass's accomplishments throughout his life. What do you think is the most meaningful?

Activities:

In each of these activities, learners explore Frederick Douglass’s speechwriting talents while thinking both creatively and analytically. In the first activity, participants analyze one of Douglass’s speeches and write their one. In the second, learners create an advertisement for an event featuring Douglass.

Activity 1: Write a Speech

Frederick Douglass was a famous speaker. He taught himself by reading a book of speeches, the Columbian Orator, over and over again. He continued to practice throughout his life. While living in New Bedford, after escaping from slavery, he was asked to go to Nantucket to talk about his experiences of slavery. It was his first abolitionist speech, but it so impressed the audience that he was offered a job as a traveling orator. In this activity, students will research a speech by Frederick Douglass, and then write and perform their own.

First, ask participants to chose one of Douglass’s speeches to analyze. Several examples of Douglass's speeches can be found at this Frederick Douglass website and his "Independence Day Speech at Rochester" can be found at this PBS website. Ask students to explain why they chose this speech, and why they think it is important. Students should also consider to whom Douglass was speaking.

Next, have students think about an event in their life that made a difference to them and write a short speech about why it was important. Have students deliver the speech to their classmates as if they do not have shared experiences. When writing their speech, students should provide their listeners context for their experience. As students work on this project, remind them to consider the following questions:

  1. What was going on in the community at the time of the event? Based on the scale of the event, this might mean explaining a local, state, national, or international context.

  1. What external factors influenced the way they experienced the event? These factors might include geography, the people they were with, or how they learned about the event .

  1. What internal factors influenced their experience? These factors might include their age, gender, race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.

  1. What sort of tone or feeling are they trying to create?

Once everyone has presented, hold a class discussion highlighting how people can experience similar things in different ways based on various factors.

Activity 2: Create and Advertisement

Frederick Douglass’s speeches were well-publicized with newspaper advertisements and posters. Now it’s your turn to create an advertisement! Draw or write an advertisement for an upcoming speech. As you do consider the following questions:

  1. At what point during Frederick Douglass’s life is this event?

  1. Where is the event being held?

  1. Who is the audience for the event?

  1. Which of Douglass’s accomplishments do you want to highlight? Which accomplishments will encourage people to attend?

  1. What will Douglass be speaking about?

  1. What kinds of facts are important to include?

Wrap-up:

  1. Why is it important that we learn about people like Frederick Douglass?

  1. What do you think was Douglass’s the most significant accomplishment? Why?

  1. How do you think Douglass felt at different points in his life, for example, as an enslaved child, as a newly freed young man, or while he participated in the US government after the Civil War? Can you imagine a time when you might have felt similarly?

  1. Can you think of someone who is a famous speaker in your community? What kinds of causes do they support?

Footnotes:

1 "Celebrities at Home. XXIII. Frederick Douglass," pp.565-566. The Republic, October 23, 1880, 566.

2 Frederick Douglass, "Chapter XIV: Living and Learning," in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).

3 Frederick Douglass, "Southern Barbarism," 24th Anniversary of Emancipation, Washington, DC, 1886 in Philip Foner, ed. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 4 (New York: International Pub., 1950), 434.

4 Frederick Douglass, "Chapter XV: Weighed in the Balance," in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).

This reading was compiled from Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: DeWolfe & Fiske Co., 1892); William McFeely, Frederick Douglass (W.W. Norton & Company; Reprint, 1995); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: The Anti-Slavery Office, 1845); the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site website and Virtual Museum Exhibit; "Frederick Douglass," Civil War Trust; "Death of Frederick Douglass," New York Times, February 21, 1895; Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: 1817-1882 (London: Christian Age Office, 1882); John Blassingame, et al, eds. The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One-Speeches, Debates, and Interviews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979); Philip Foner, ed. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 4 (New York: International Pub., 1950).

Additional Resources:

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park Service. The park's website contains numerous resources to learn about Frederick Douglass and his home, Cedar Hill, in Washington, DC.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress has a collection of Frederick Douglass: Online Resources that offers a variety of links to content, activities, exhibits, photos, and other resources discussing Douglass.

In addition, the Library of Congress provides access to Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The library at UNC Chapel Hill offers digital copies of slave narratives in their "Documenting the Old South" online collection. Included in this collection are the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

Last updated: March 16, 2021