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Tall physically, morally and intellectually, full of oratory art, extraordinary intrepid daring human being who challenged racism at its highest point, and a radical abolitionist, as historians depict him, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was bigger than history has given him credit. One would say with all farness that no Black history would be well recounted and complete without Frederick Douglass’ thrilling and multidimensional part of life story.
By 1954, Frederick D. was a nearly forgotten man. It was only after historian Philip Foner decided to transcribe hundreds of pages of forgotten speeches and long scattered letters in the late 1940s that many realized that Douglass was an essential missing figure in the history of Black Americans and the United States as a whole.
Born in 1818, Douglass never knew the month of his birth. Son of a slave woman and an unknown White man, Douglass only saw his mother five times before she died and the only thing he knew about his father is that he was White. From Baltimore where he was working in farm, Douglass, 20, managed to escape slavery and using springboard and train he reached New York City the next day, Sept. 3, 1838. From there, he went to become a world renowned anti-slavery activist.
Douglass started out with attending anti-slavery rallies and listening to speeches organized and held by Black leaders. Self-educated, he quickly took the stand and began touring town after town attacking slavery, Jim Crowism and the lynching of the 1890, sharing testimonies of his struggle for freedom. His appeal was simply exceptional. As historian Wendell Philips put it: “he was simply daring and influential. No other orator could compare to the redemptive power of the life story Douglass embodied.” Characterizing his attributes, another historian, Paul Kendrick, indicated: “his physical presence and his oratory ability awed Blacks and Whites combined.” But it was his courage that astonished many. Douglass attacked slavery and racism in a time where they were rampant and extremely strong.
His popularity and influence in U.S. and abroad (England) made him an indispensable figure in the political dynamic. He succeeded to break into the circle of President Abraham Lincoln and built a type of relationship that only the two men could very well comprehend. As Kendrick said, Lincoln was not close to black people but was close to Douglass in dealing with the issue of race not as a human reality but as a political one. Although he stated that “he has never been in his life in a meeting of Negros,” Douglass indicated that Lincoln “is the only White man I ever spent an hour with who didn’t remind me that I was a Negro.”
In their political game, no one could be totally ignorant of what each side wanted to achieve. As a revolutionary Black leader, Douglass took advantage of his relationship with Lincoln to convince a reluctant president who was slow to emancipate, to end slavery, to put black soldiers in the battler, and to save the Union. Very instrumental during the Civil War, Douglass understood that a victory without an active participation of Black people in the battle would not be prestigious. “You have to fight for your own self-respect,” Douglass told black recruits. He engaged in recruiting black fighters and the first two men he enlisted in the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth were his sons, Lewis, 22, and Charles, 18, who later with other Black soldiers, made the case of Black contribution to the construction and preservation of the Union as well as the emancipation proclamation.
Whether it was a fight to preserve the Union or for Blacks to acquire full citizenship, Douglass had one thing he had learned throughout his entire life as a slave: “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” This is to say that if Black Americans were to become full citizens of the United Stated, Douglass would have sought it by words or fights, or both.
After the war, Douglass engaged in fight for women rights. He joined and united with both White and Black abolitionists and activists whom he regarded as partners in his struggle for freedom. This approach better translates what he himself said: “I will unite with everybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Autobiographer and editor, Douglass died in 1895 in Washington D.C. leaving behind a fascinating and impressive life story of which this piece is only an iota.