Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass sits at a table in 1863.
Frederick Douglass, January 21, 1863. Photo courtesy: Hillsdale College

About Frederick Douglass

Dressed as a mariner and carrying another seaman’s protection papers, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey boarded a train in Baltimore, Maryland in September 1838. As a slave, this escape attempt was a federal crime.

Bailey was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland in 1818. Later, his master leased him out as a caulker in Baltimore, where he worked on the wharves to make ships water-tight. In the 1830s, he met Anna Murray, a free woman who would aid his escape. Murray worked as a domestic servant in Baltimore; she sold a feather bed to buy Bailey's train ticket north.

At 20 years of age, Bailey traveled from Maryland to Delaware, and then to Philadelphia, before landing in New York City. In New York, Bailey sent for Murray. The two married in New York on September 15, 1838 − 12 days after Bailey had set off from Maryland. New York was a free state, but it was still not safe for the newlyweds. The couple took the name Johnson, and caught a steamer bound for Newport, Rhode Island.

Frederick and Anna Johnson landed in Newport the next morning. There, they met Quakers William C. Taber and Joseph Ricketson of New Bedford, Massachusetts. With their help, the couple boarded a stagecoach and traveled north to New Bedford. They arrived on September 17, and were welcomed by African-American abolitionists Nathan and Polly Johnson.

While in their home at 21 Seventh Street, Nathan Johnson encouraged Frederick to adopt the surname Douglass. As Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave would earn his first wages, start a family, and become an internationally-renowned speaker and abolitionist.

A white house on Seventh Street marks where Nathan and Polly Johnson lived.
Nathan and Polly Johnson's home still stands on Seventh Street in New Bedford. The yellow building next door was a Quaker Meeting House and currently stands as a National Historic Landmark. Photo courtesy: NPS

Life and Work in New Bedford

In 1839, Frederick and Anna Douglass moved to 157 Elm Street, their first home located in an African American neighborhood in the West End of New Bedford. Douglass’ daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, later recorded in a memoir of her mother, Anna Murray Douglass: My Mother as I Recall Her, 1900, reprint 1923:

“In 1890 I was taken by my father to these rooms on Elm Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts, overlooking Buzzards Bay. This was my birthplace. Every detail as to the early housekeeping was gone over, it was indelibly impressed upon his mind, even to the hanging of a towel on a particular nail. Many of the dishes used by my mother at the time were in our Rochester home and kept as souvenirs of those first days of housekeeping.”

In 1841, Douglass moved his growing family to larger quarters in the northern end of town. Their new home at 111 Ray Street (now Acushnet Avenue) was located near the wharves where Douglass often worked.

Shortly after arriving in New Bedford, Douglass headed toward the wharves, but stopped short after spotting a pile of coal outside a Union Street home. At 174 Union Street, he met Mrs. Ephraim Peabody and asked if he could put the coal away for her. She consented, and paid Douglass two silver half-dollars for his work. This was his first paid job.

“I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half-dollars. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me — that it was mine — that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin, one must have been in some sense himself a slave.”
—Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, 1893

Douglass also worked as a laborer on the wharves for Rodney French and George Howland. There, he had wanted to work as a caulker, making the ships water-tight. However, he encountered resistance from white caulkers. Douglass also worked at Anthony D. Richmond’s foundry.

A browned 1844 publication of The Liberator depicts both slavery and emancipation in its heading.
Frederick Douglass read the abolitionist newspaper started by William Lloyd Garrison. Photo courtesy: Wiki Commons

A Sharpening Political Consciousness

In New Bedford, Frederick and Anna Douglass maintained their commitment to the Methodist faith. They attended several Methodist churches in New Bedford before joining the newly established African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and became active “in the several capacities of sexton, steward, class leader, clerk and local preacher.” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845).

Meanwhile, Douglass avidly read The Liberator, an abolitionist paper, and was increasingly fueled by New Bedford’s strong anti-slavery activity.

"The paper (the Liberator) came, and I read it week to week with such feelings as it would be quite idle for me to attempt to describe. The paper became my meat and drink. My soul was set all on fire."
—Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 1845

Douglass himself registered to vote less than a year after arriving in New Bedford, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church became his platform for articulating his beliefs about slavery and freedom. Local banker William C. Coffin heard Douglass speak, probably in 1841 when the church was located on North Second Street, and was so impressed by Douglass’ sermon that he invited Douglass to speak in Nantucket. Douglass traveled to Nantucket in August 1841, and there delivered an impassioned address that launched his career as an antislavery lecturer.

Black and white photo of Frederick Douglass leaning against a table among a crowd during an anti-slavery convention.
Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith at an abolitionist gathering in Cazenovia, New York in August 1850. Photo courtesy: Smithsonian Institute/ Mr. and Mrs. Set Charles Momjian

Speaking Out Against Slavery

Frederick Douglass used his personal experience to give a human face to the sufferings of slavery. He rose quickly to prominence as a favorite abolitionist and anti-slavery speaker, traveling throughout the country and world to shed light on the horrors of America’s “peculiar institution.”

He campaigned tirelessly across the country, speaking nearly every day to audiences large and small in public parks, town squares, lecture halls, churches, schoolhouses, and any place an audience could be assembled.

Douglass also worked hard for the equal treatment of all genders and races. He was one of the few men who attended the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. He fought for black men’s right to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, encouraging the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in 1863. He served as a political delegate in the Reconstruction South to ensure black suffrage. He spoke out frequently in support of equal employment and social opportunities, and against lynchings, discrimination, and “Jim Crow.”

Frederick Douglass will long be remembered as a noted orator, writer, publisher, politician, entrepreneur, political activist, national celebrity, and historical figure. He left an indelible mark on the social, economic, and political landscape of the nineteenth century.

Left, Anna Murray portrait; right, Frederick Douglass portrait
Left, Anna Murray; right, a young Frederick Douglass. The two married in 1838, after Murray helped then Frederick Bailey escape to New York.

Douglass' New Bedford Legacy

Frederick Douglass hated slavery and dreamed of freedom from an early age. His desire to know a better world triggered his effort to learn to read and write long before he was able to escape slavery — but his exposure to a community of politically aware and active people of color in New Bedford gave life to the idea that he might himself become an effective foe of slavery and advocate for freedom.

Douglass was not the only fugitive to go from a life in New Bedford to antislavery activism. But his presence and prominence helped to stamp the city as a refuge for fugitives, a past of which the city remains proud to this day.

Three of Douglass’ five children were also born in New Bedford. Rosetta Douglass was born on June 24, 1839. Lewis Henry Douglass was born on October 9, 1840. Frederick Douglass, Jr. was born on March 3, 1842 before the Douglass family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts.

Charles Remond Douglass was born on October 21, 1844 in Lynn. Annie Douglass was born on March 22, 1849 in Rochester, New York; she died at the age of 10 years old.

Last updated: March 3, 2020

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