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Where Frederick Douglass Found The Purpose Of His Voice

By Laurence Bass

Juneteenth’s celebration of freedom was a dream that Frederick Douglass had at an early age here on Baltimore’s waterfront. Read about what made this slave-turned-abolitionist flee bondage to write the words of The North Star that challenged the society exploiting his people in Maryland and elsewhere.

"Frederick Douglass" by Marion Doss is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Click on the picture to see the original source.

Baltimore has been home to many legendary published authors and decorated writers since its founding in 1729. Edgar Allen Poe, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W.E.B. DuBois, H.L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, Tupac Shakur, D. Watkins and countless others have written with everything from the quill to a lettered keyboard while producing great works of fiction and documenting the events that shaped Charm City. Frederick Douglass, the slavery-abolishing journalist and orator extraordinaire, found the purpose behind his voice here on the cobblestone streets of Fells Point.

Unlike those authors before and since, Douglass endured a very different road to having his stirring words published to be seen by the eyes of his ardent supporters and silenced detractors. There were no classrooms or encouraging academic settings available for Frederick Douglass to assist in honing the young writer's budding excellence on paper. His only motivator was a quenchless drive for learning created by the South's rampant denial of literacy for those enduring the systemic dehumanization at the very root of slavery. This Juneteenth we chart the inspirational story of this Baltimore writer’s trek on the uneven educational path that began on The Waterfront for young Frederick Douglass to attain the freedom through print that he and all the generations of his people longed for since first arriving to the Thirteen Colonies. 

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on the plantation of Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1817 (or 1818) to Harriet Bailey. Frederick’s father, to his knowledge, was sold away. He was separated from his grandparents, Issac and Betsy Bailey, at the age of six when he was moved to Captain Aaron Anthony’s Wye House Plantation in Easton, Maryland. Lucrita Auld inherited Frederick as property after Anthony died, which led to her bringing the child to Baltimore, where her brother-in-law Hugh Auld lived.

At the time, Baltimore was caught in an internal struggle of being a 'free' or 'slave' state with most sections of the town representing both ideologies. The Mason-Dixon Line extended from Maryland's eastern and northern borders and stretched all the way to the far western edge of Texas and was the line of demarcation separating North from South. Though geographically stationed at the very apex of Dixie, Baltimore was one of the growing nation's largest ports in the slave trade. Abolitionists tirelessly campaigned for freedom while traffickers held auctions at thoroughfares that were stationed along Baltimore Street. Young Frederick would live this contrasting social existence that by 1820 was home to an estimated 10,000 black freemen living within walking distance to those the 4,000 still in bondage.

Dot-density map of Baltimore’s 1820 population arranged by wards: whites are purple, free blacks are green, and enslaved workers are blue. Courtesy of Click the picture to be redirected to more detailed credits of the image.

His early memories of Fells Point, documented in his narrative ‘The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass’, were understandably rough as a child slave to the Aulds who lived at the corner of Durham and Aliceanna Streets. His most important life-changing moment as a youth happened when a gesture of kindness swiftly reintroduced him back to the cruel reality of his station in life

"Mrs. Auld was a woman with the kindest heart and finest feeling," Douglass wrote, recollecting about the sketches of compassion seen in his owner’s wife. “But slavery soon proved it’s ability to divest her of these excellent qualities. Very soon after I went to live with Mr.& Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the ABCs. After these, she assisted me in learning words of three and four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further. Telling her, among other things, that it was ‘unlawful’ as well as ‘unsafe’ to teach a slave to read. ‘It will forever make him unfit to be a slave. He will at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master.' These words sank deep into my heart. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”  

Mrs. Auld, who had become violent whenever she suspected her former student of reading after the lectured advising of her husband, was no longer a secret ally in Frederick’s education. This forced him to quickly become his own teacher and pupil. The young writer's growing desire to learn more introduced him to a steady curriculum of impromptu lessons on the street and in the shipyard that drastically improved his reading and writing. Frederick’s interactions with white youth gave him that starting point. He jovially challenged them to reading and writing exercises that made them unknowingly teach him how to recite and pronounce new words while following their schooled handwriting techniques to covertly retain. As time passed, this accelerated Frederick’s literacy, grammar and ability to effectively arrange his thoughts into scribbled paragraphs that society forced him to conceal.

"[Literacy] will forever make him unfit to be a slave. He will at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master." These words sank deep in my heart. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick's lessons continued next to stevedores and shipbuilders as he followed the terminology denoting the parts of the vessel from ‘bow’ to ‘starboard’ on the planks of wood used to build them. All of this was set to memory as he clandestinely perfected on paper what he learned around his oppressors. The pieces of literature he was able to hide from the Aulds were his realest companions walking through the Fells Point marketplace and on the streets of Lancaster, Thames and Broadway. Frederick’s educational sessions through interaction with his free, white peers of all ages continued as he became a teenager.

Frederick’s path towards the freedom he longingly desired for the entirety of his existence carried him out of Baltimore at fourteen to live with Thomas Auld, Hugh’s brother, where he withstood the torment from his new owner and physically defended himself on more than one occasion. This presaged his eventual escape at the age of twenty to Philadelphia, New York City, and later Upstate New York, where he began freely illustrating the tenets of slavery through his harrowing accounts to crowds of eager listeners. 

He changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass at the behest of an abolitionist for the effect of distinction to prove he that was once a slave and not the freeman that many believed him to be due to his remarkable command of the language. His new last name would become a household one on the topic of slavery once he created his own newspaper–The North Star–that became the printed clarion on the inhumane philosophy dividing the nation and separating black families. The resonating truths behind the atrocities of slavery witnessed by Douglass bred his eloquence on paper and brought him to the White House to discuss the issue and antebellum matters with Presidents Abraham Lincoln and then Andrew Johnson. By 1870, five years after the Confederacy suffered defeat in the Civil War, Douglass proved to be an instrumental figure in getting the 15th Amendment passed which gave black men the right to vote. This differs from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that outlawed the Southern discriminatory practices used to hinder and intimidate black men and women from voting. 

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, DC,WASH,166-12. This file originally comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) or Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS).

In 1895, the last year of his life, Frederick Douglass returned to Baltimore and purchased a house that currently stands on Dallas Street (once the slave/free way of Strawberry Alley). Today, it is accompanied by a plaque commemorating the residence of one of the greatest minds that this country has ever produced. It is very fitting that the man who as a child was forbidden from even glancing at a page with words on it by his captor would become the writer helping to topple the same institution constructed on the prolonged suffering of his people.

Though his final resting place is in our nation’s capital, the Living Classrooms' Frederick Douglass/Isaac Myers Museum in Fells Point is a place where the man’s life and growing legacy are on display so that everyone may be able to learn from his journey. The Underground Railroad Museum, a dedicated touchstone of Harriet Tubman’s courageously blazed trail to freedom, sits only blocks away from Douglass’ Dallas Street home and highlights the path many found refuge in as they escaped from the terrors of slavery. Douglass' path to enhance his use of the written word to better his life and that of others reshaped the collective narrative on the long-standing practices of accepted injustice that built this country: one that started on the bustling docks of Baltimore’s Waterfront.