Frederick Douglass
A Powerful Voice for Abolition and Equal Rights


1817--1895. Frederick Douglass was an American abolitionist, born near Easton, Md. The son of a black slave, Harriet Bailey, and an unknown white father, he took the name of Douglass (from Scott's hero in The Lady of the Lake) after his second and successful, attempt to escape from slavery in 1838. At New Bedford, Mass., he found work as a day laborer. An extemporaneous speech before a meeting at Nantucket of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841 was so effective that he was made one of its agents. Douglass, who had learned to read and write while in the service of a kind mistress in Baltimore, published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. Fearing capture as a fugitive slave, he spent several years in England and Ireland and returned in 1847, after English friends had purchased his freedom. At Rochester, N.Y., he established the North Star and edited it for 17 years in the abolitionist cause. Unlike William H. Garrison, he favored the use of political methods and thus became a follower of James G. Birney. In the Civil War he helped organize two regiments of Massachusetts African Americans and urged other blacks to join the Union ranks. During Reconstruction he continued to urge civil rights for African Americans. He was secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission (1871), marshal of the District of Columbia (1877--81), recorder of deeds for the same district (1881--86), and minister to Haiti (1889--91). Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1962) is a revised edition of his autobiography, which has also been published as My Bondage and My Freedom.

Source: Douglass, Frederick. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Edition 5, 1993 (p. 1108) Columbia University Press: 1993

See also biographies by: Booker T. Washington (1907), Philip Foner (1964), Benjamin Quarles (1968), Arna Bontemps (1971), and William McFreely (1991); Edmund Fuller, A Star Pointed North(1946); P. S. Foner, edit., Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (4 vol., 1950--55).

“Liberty given is never so precious as liberty sought for and fought for.”
-- FREDERICK DOUGLASS speaking about the rights of the Negro.

On September 24, 1883, the great orator Frederick Douglass addressed the National Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky, and explained why African Americans needed to fight for their rights. Only three weeks later, on October 15, 1883, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The court declared that racial discrimination in public accommodations was not contrary to the Constitution. Stripped of judicial support, the post-Civil War constitutional amendments became meaningless in the South, and the way was clear for the adoption of Jim Crow laws, which imposed racial segregation.

Here is an excerpt of that speech:

With apparent surprise, astonishment and impatience we have been asked: "What more can the colored people of this country want than they now have, and what more is possible to them?" It is said they were once slaves, they are now free; they were once subjects, they are now sovereigns; they were once outside of all American institutions, they are now inside of all and are a recognized part of the whole American people. Why, then, do they hold Colored National Conventions and thus insist upon keeping up the color line between themselves and their white fellow countrymen? We do not deny the pertinence and plausibility of these questions, nor do we shrink from a candid answer to the argument which they are supposed to contain. For we do not forget that they are not only put to us by those who have no sympathy with us, but by many who wish us well, and that in any case they deserve an answer ...

If liberty, with us, is yet but a name, our citizenship is but a sham, and our suffrage thus far only a cruel mockery, we may yet congratulate ourselves upon the fact, that the laws and institutions of the country are sound, just and liberal. There is hope for a people when their laws are righteous, whether for the moment they conform to their requirements or not. But until this nation shall make its practice accord with its Constitution and its righteous laws, it will not do to reproach the colored people of this country with keeping up the color line--for that people would prove themselves scarcely worthy of even theoretical freedom, to say nothing of practical freedom, if they settled down in silent, servile and cowardly submission to their wrongs, from fear of making their color visible. They are bound by every element of manhood to hold conventions, in their own name, and on their own behalf, to keep their grievances before the people and make every organized protest against the wrongs inflicted upon them within their power. They should scorn the counsels of cowards, and hang their banner on the outer wall.

Source: The American Reader, Edition 1991 p170(5).