Douglass & the
Freedom, equality and justice have been American ideals since before the nation won its independence. But their opposites—slavery, inequality and injustice—come to the fore in the writing of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and abolitionist. Douglass’s rousing oratory and his work as a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad made him the voice of the mid-19th-century abolitionist movement—and a man for whom the American dream would not be denied.
The opening of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave details Douglass’s uncertain birth date and unknown age (“the white children could tell their ages”), his separation as an infant from his mother (a common practice of slave owners in his native Maryland) and the uncertainty of his father’s identity (probably a white man, hinted to be his master, Captain Aaron Anthony). Soon Douglass learned to read and write, and in newspapers he learned of Northern abolitionist movements.
Douglass’s first escape attempt, when he was probably 18, did not succeed. He was returned to Baltimore to work in the shipyards. In 1838, with the help of Anna Murray, a freeborn black woman he later married, he escaped to New York City. Three years later William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist and cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, recruited Douglass to lecture about the realities of slave life. A naturally charismatic and persuasive orator, Douglass gained renown as an abolitionist speaker. His lectures form the majority of Narrative, the first of three autobiographies he wrote. The book became an instant best-seller in the United States and in Europe, firmly establishing Douglass as the preeminent African American spokesperson for abolition.
The Underground Railroad was the network of routes and locations American slaves used to escape to the northern United States and Canada, where slavery had been outlawed. Begun in the late 18th century, it made use of railway terminology, which included “conductors” (abolitionists and former slaves) who guided their “passengers” (escaping slaves) to freedom. To improve their chances of success, conductors and passengers traveled mainly at night, stopping at “stations”—safe private locations where they could hide and rest—during the day.
Frederick Douglass worked within the Underground Railroad network, as both conductor and “stationmaster” (someone who hid slaves in his or her house). Details of Douglass’s own escape were not published until the decade before his death. “In substance [the] reasons were,” he explained in 1881, “first, that such publication at any time during the existence of slavery might be used by the master against the slave, and prevent the future escape of any who might adopt the same means that I did. The second reason was, if possible, still more binding to silence: the publication of details would certainly have put in peril the persons and property of those who assisted.”
In Massachusetts in 1844, Sojourner Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an integrated community founded by abolitionists, where she met Frederick Douglass and other abolition leaders. Like Douglass, Truth became a renowned antislavery speaker and author. (Unable to read or write, she dictated her published work.) Her 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” asked the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, to consider the failure of chivalric ideals of femininity and criticized secular and religious justifications for gender inequality. “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere,” she said. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” Truth reminded her audience that Christ was born of God and a woman: “Man had nothing to do with Him.” Both Truth and Douglass adeptly exhorted audiences to listen to their better angels, employing Christian imagery and rhetoric whenever possible.
Although Sojourner Truth did not participate in the Underground Railroad’s Southern activities, she awaited its passengers at the end of their frightful journey. Truth helped former slaves who had reached the North, along with the thousands emancipated during the Civil War, to begin their lives as free citizens.
Escaped slaves and black soldiers were in some sense free, but their lives were far from comfortable. Truth began speaking to and visiting with former slaves, teaching them how to find jobs, save money and manage a household. After the war, Truth worked as a job recruiter for freed slaves by urging Northern businesses and families to employ black men and women. In 1857 Truth sold her house in Northampton, Massachusetts, and bought one in Harmonia, Michigan, but in 10 years’ time she had spent much of her remaining money trying to help black Americans find new lives in the North and West. She sold the Harmonia house and moved into a barn in nearby Battle Creek, using the money to travel across the country. For the rest of her life, Truth campaigned for the rights of freed men, women and children, and lobbied politicians for land grants to former slaves.
Nicknamed Moses—after the leader of the Exodus, the journey of the ancient Jews out of enslavement in Egypt—Harriet Tubman was an intrepid Underground Railroad conductor. Soon after escaping to Philadelphia, Tubman rescued her niece Kessiah and her two children. Tubman also rescued her parents and freed her brothers Robert, Ben, Henry and Moses. When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required Northerners to return former slaves to their Southern owners, Tubman settled her family in St. Catharines, Ontario, and took escaped slaves there instead.
Tubman is said to have made 13 trips, freeing at least 70 slaves. Another 70 are believed to have used her instructions to reach the North safely. On these routes Tubman was helped by abolitionists and suffragists such as Lucretia Mott in Philadelphia and Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. Douglass helped Tubman and her passengers reach Niagara Falls, where they crossed into Ontario. Tubman’s strategies included disguising herself as an older woman, dressing as a man and heading back south to fool slave catchers on her trail. She carried a pistol, both for protection and to persuade any fugitive slaves having second thoughts, who might endanger the group on its journey.
Christian abolitionist John Brown rejected pacifism as a means to abolish the institution of slavery and instead campaigned to wage a violent war on slaveholders and slavery supporters. Brown came to know Frederick Douglass and many in his circle, and although Douglass refused to take up arms, he observed, after meeting Brown for the first time, “Though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”
On October 16, 1859, Brown and his followers attempted to raid an armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia), intending to supply slaves with weapons and ignite war. The rebellion did not succeed, and the conspirators found themselves surrounded by Robert E. Lee’s troops and unable to escape. Within two days most of the abolitionists were captured or killed. Before his execution, Brown admitted he had been optimistic that his raid would spare the nation “very much bloodshed,” but now he saw no way out of slavery other than full-scale war.
Before taking up arms against slavery, John Brown used his homes in Ohio and western Massachusetts as stations on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves reach Canada. Shortly before his raid at Harpers Ferry, Brown and his militia rescued a dozen slaves from Missouri, leading them 1,000 miles into Michigan on one of the longest and most publicized trips to take slaves to freedom. Between 1830 and 1860 as many as 40,000 fugitive slaves in Ohio alone may have been conducted to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Brown, who had met with Frederick Douglass several times since 1847, seeking support for his antislavery revolution, met with him a final time in August 1859, hoping to enlist him in the Harpers Ferry raid. According to Douglass, Brown “put his arms around me in a manner more than friendly, and said, ‘Come with me, Douglass; I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose. When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.’ But my discretion or my cowardice made me proof against the dear old man’s eloquence—perhaps it was something of both which determined my course.”
Both John Brown and Nat Turner were deeply religious men who believed they were carrying out God’s work by striving to end slavery. The two were infamous for their revolutionary tactics: Both committed murder and died in service to their missions, which were ill-fated but perhaps necessary steps along the path toward the Civil War. Like Brown, Turner believed a successful campaign against slavery needed to target its stronghold: Virginia. Despite the punitive legal measures taken against slaves after his bloody rebellion, Turner became an African American martyr, and abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass viewed his actions as the logical fulfillment of the American Revolution and the Constitution’s true message of freedom for all.
In 1831 Turner’s lawyer, Thomas Gray, published what he called The Confessions of Nat Turner. Many believe Gray’s account sensationalized Turner and the revolt. In 1967 William Styron published a fictional account of Turner’s life, also called The Confessions of Nat Turner. Black writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin championed Styron’s novel, while others criticized it as racist. Despite the charged subject matter and graphic depictions of violence, many readers view Styron’s controversial novel as more sympathetic than Gray’s account.
In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs writes of Nat Turner, his uprising in Virginia and its aftermath. At the time of Turner’s 1831 rebellion, Jacobs was 17 and living with her grandmother in Edenton, North Carolina, under the watchful eye of Dr. James Norcom, her sexually abusive master. Jacobs describes the impact of Turner’s raid on black slaves and citizens of Edenton: “Everywhere men, women, and children were whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet. Some received 500 lashes; others were tied hands and feet, and tortured with a bucking paddle, which blisters the skin terribly.” While Jacobs neither praises nor blames Turner, she notes that his insurrection challenged the South’s claim that its slaves were “contented and happy.” Elsewhere in her narrative Jacobs sharply indicts slavery as being at odds with the slaveholders’ Old and New Testaments.
Soon after Turner’s rebellion, laws were enacted across the South to keep slaves from learning to read and write and from meeting in large groups. Partly owing to Turner’s reputation as a preacher, the North Carolina legislature passed an act “silencing” all black preachers, both freemen and slaves.
Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the second most widely read slave narrative, just behind Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs published her story in 1861—long after Douglass had toured the United Kingdom giving talks based on his Narrative and after he had expanded it into a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Jacobs’s narrative emerged as the Civil War began to engulf the United States.
Jacobs describes in Incidents her disillusionment with the treatment of blacks in the North, where, after escaping to freedom, she is unable to procure first-class train tickets. Jacobs initially believes she has failed to give enough money for first-class passage. “This was the first chill to my enthusiasm about the Free States. Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind white people, at the south, but there they were not required to pay for the privilege. It made me sad to find how the north aped the customs of slavery.”