This assignment, written by Reuel Goins, is the culmination of their end of trimester research paper in Mr. Grunden’s U.S. History class. At the beginning of the Trimester, the students choose who they want to write about from a list of prominent figures in early U.S. and Native American History, up to the Civil War era. Reuel chose to write about Douglass.
The plight of African-Americans in history is one that fascinates many people. The trials and tribulations that so many people experienced have created a beautiful landscape of stories that express themselves in poetry, music, literature, paintings and film. More than all of this, it has created a select group of people whom the public is now celebrating as national heroes.
These people in times of great sacrifice have stood up not only for the rights of their people but for the rights of all people who face oppression. The ideas that these men and women embody will stand the test of time and will always contribute to the idea of human freedom. Frederick Douglass, born a slave, died a saving grace, is a man whose contribution to the abolition of slavery revolutionized the very act of revolution.
To understand the importance of Frederick Douglass, one must first understand what he fought against. Frederick Douglass fought against the epidemic of racism that had planted its roots so deeply in his times. In his fight, he spoke for the unalienable rights of all human beings, no matter which class, race or gender. His biggest victory was against the most negative and immediate manifestation of these dark institutions. Slavery.
Slavery is a system in which select human beings are the legal property of another human being and are forced under their rule. It has existed for thousands of years and has shaped countless cultures. Slave status may be decided by several factors, but some are race, gender, and socioeconomic status. It is not uncommon for a slave to have been someone working off a debt. It is also not uncommon for a slave to have belonged to a family who had been toiling the same job for generations.
Although slavery is not unique to any one country, the United States is home to a rare, violent and explosive history with it. The North and South American regions which were commonly referred to as “the New World” offered the idea of utopia for many European travelers. These travelers were facing religious persecution and sought a place to safely practice their beliefs. This new world offered something much better. The New World was malleable, people with power came and saw fit to mold the place into an image more tailored to suit them. There were grand intentions and exciting possibilities (The Slave Experience: Living Conditions)
To harness the crops and tools necessary for their new world, the colonists relied on slavery, something they had experience with in their country of England. Slavery was the perfect solution because the slaves were able bodied and able to produce many things in return for very little (History of Slavery in America). What many envisioned as a fine-oiled, smoothly run machine was actually working to create several problems that would plague future generations.
Early slavery was not documented well, but it is known that the conditions were much better than they would eventually be. Slaves were at the bottom of the social barrel, but many were employed as indentured servants. Indentured servitude was contractual and after a period of time, slaves could become landowners and/or gain their freedom. Anthony Johnson was an African-American indentured servant who became a landowner and eventually a slave-owner himself (History of Slavery in America).
Over time, as the economics of the New World began to progress, a gradual status change became more prominent. The social machine required slaves to be available in larger quantities and to cover more area which, in return, meant harsher conditions. Slaves’ poor social status also translated into a poor public image as the already alienated Europeans began to see them as lesser beings. In 1640 the first black indentured servants became slaves and many followed after that (History of Slavery in America).
Slaves worked in or under brutal physical conditions. They were subject to very little protective clothing, always hungry and worked in different extremes of heat and cold. Their oppression was systematic: light skinned slaves who were often the children of white slave owners and slave women were given higher status than darker slaves which led to feelings of envy and resentment known as pigmentocracy (Pigmentocracy) .
To keep the hate machine that was slavery fueled, dark rhetoric was put into the public consciousness. Those who were in defense of slavery argued that it was a natural occurrence that had been around since the beginning of mankind. The Greeks possessed slaves, the Romans possessed slaves and the colonists needed slaves. The Bible was also used to justify slavery with many citing that there was no specific commandment against it. This created growing feelings of resentment and anger between both classes (The Slave Experience: Living Conditions).
The need for a hero was not simply just to get African-Americans out of their horrible conditions. African-Americans wanted themselves to be taken seriously. They wanted equality, they wanted to be able to stand next to a white man and be seen as the same. They wanted to walk on a street and not be laughed at. They wanted to speak with a proper accent, read, write and wear the same clothes as the white man. Black women wanted to be able to wear their dresses, do their hair and raise their kids just like the white women. All seemed lost until somebody came.
He was born as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in a small Maryland county. His exact birth date was unknown because his birth as a slave kept him from having proper records, but he chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th. Since his first days he was subject to the cruel animosities of slavery. He was separated from his mother, Harriet Bailey a woman whom he describes as sporting “dark complexion” (Douglass 2) and for reasons he could only speculate.
He was sent to live with his grandmother Betsey because the system deemed that it was more effective that younger slave women would work in the fields whilst the older slave women could raise the children. Douglass speculated that this might also be to break apart the natural bond that co-exists between mother and child. He knew his father was a white man, but did not know who he was, it was whispered around the grapevine that he was his master but this was never confirmed (Biography – Early Life).
Frederick did not know his mother very well. He recalls seeing her “four or five times” in his life and never getting a chance to enjoy her soothing presence or her “tender and watchful care” (Douglass 3). When about seven or eight Frederick had been separated from his grandmother and moved to the Why House plantation. He had no idea why this was and felt betrayed that his grandmother would just leave him, but this part of the journey would end up being one of importance for young Frederick as he would witness the cruelty of slavery. Frederick had many experiences that formulated his opinions (Biography – Early Life). He recalls seeing an aunt of his getting brutally whipped for the slave master’s satisfaction. “He was a cruel man” (Douglass 5) whom would “whip upon her naked back” (Douglass 5) until she was drenched in blood. He whipped her to hear a shriek and whipped her to make her quiet.
Frederick was later given to the Auld family in Baltimore and was a companion to their young child. In Baltimore, he was received well by the wife of Hugh Auld, Sophia. This was Sophia’s first slave under her control and she was kind to young Frederick and graciously taught him how to read. Frederick described her as a women “of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (Douglass 28). He was astonished at her kind heart, she showed no anger, even when given the eye contact of a slave. She possessed the power to put a slave with a heavy heart at ease.
She began teaching Frederick how to read and was jubilant when he could say three and four letter words, when he could recount the ABCs. When Hugh discovered this he scolded her and told her that it was dangerous to teach a slave how to read. If a slave learned how to read it would give him too much power, but also if a slave read it would make him unhappy and discontent with life (Biography – Early Life). These words sparked a fire in Frederick’s brain, he realized the tool that could lead to his freedom. There was a weight to the powerful tool of knowledge, reading and writing would help Frederick get out of his situation.
After the scolding, Frederick’s education did not stop immediately. Sophia found it hard to stop treating Frederick as human beings ought to be treated, but slowly with time she halted the kind behavior. Frederick realized slavery was not only affecting his state, but affected the state of a perfectly sweet woman. He realized its harm in bringing out the worst of every single individual. Still, she had given him enough knowledge that he was able to grow and become the worst fear of the anti-Abolitionist movement.
Later, Frederick Douglass spent every waking moment of his life contemplating the natural state of things, why it was a select few who got to be masters and the rest slaves. How a God could be so benevolent but allow something so cruel to happen to his people? All the cards were stacked up against him, but without gun or sword, simply with reliable knowledge, he was able to make an impression on many including Abraham Lincoln. When the Civil War began in 1861, Douglass made the effort to recruit free black men of the North to fight for their enslaved brothers in the South. This was met with severe backlash, but Frederick continued to write letter after letter stressing the importance of his position. After the Emancipation Proclamation, and writing many more letters, blacks gained the right to enlist. They went from originally receiving minimal pay and low service jobs to making up 9 to 12 percent of the Union army (Douglass’ Role in the Civil War). This progression of the black identity, pioneered by Douglass, continued through years of hard labor by many others led to the 20th of January, 2009. That year the United States swore in its first African-American president and the souls of the dead who dreamed of such possibilities were finally able to rest.
Official Website, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
“Douglass Role in the Civil War.” frederick-douglass-heritage.org. Frederick Douglass
Heritage: The Official Website, n.d. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave. Boston:
Anti-Slavery Office, 1845. Print. Public Domain.
Harris, Trudier. “Pigmentocracy.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe. National Humanities Center.
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“History of Slavery in America.” ocf.berkeley.edu. Open Computing Facility, 2004. Web. 3 Feb.