Heard the name Frederick Douglass in the news lately? It’s an excellent time to educate the kiddos (and reeducate yourself) on this founding father whose outstanding contributions to society broke ground, broke color barriers and changed the course of history. Here’s what you should know about one of the greatest American heroes.
1. He chose the last name Douglass from a poem.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was born into slavery in Maryland, 1818. Although both of his parents were slaves, Frederick never really knew his mother as she worked a different plantation and he never met his father. Later, when Frederick married he chose the last name Douglass after the hero clan in Sir Walter Scott’s famous poem, Lady of the Lake.
Tip: For younger kids who haven’t covered the slavery chapter in history yet, it’s important to help them understand what this means in a way that won’t terrify them (even though slavery is terrifying). A simple explanation is always best with the younger kids: there was a time in our country’s history that men, women and children were considered property and did not have equal rights.
2. He taught himself to read and write.
Although Frederick did not attend school (black children were not allowed) he understood the power and value of literacy. And so, at a young age, he taught himself to read and write!
This is a great reminder for any child struggling with reading or even homework! If he could do it, they can do it!
3. He disguised himself as a sailor to escape slavery.
Young Frederick read avidly and educated himself on the rights of every person to be free. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape slavery, he finally managed to escape thanks to the help of a free black woman named Anne Murray. She helped him pay for a train ticket north. Disguised as a sailor, he made his escape on Sep. 3, 1838. He was 20-years old.
4. He married the woman who helped him escape.
Not long after his successful escape, Frederick married Anne Murray, and they took the last name Douglass. They moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts and together had five children.
5. Douglass was an abolitionist.
An abolitionist is a person who wants to get rid of (abolish) a practice or institution. Specifically, the abolitionist movement sought to be rid of slavery.
6. In spite of the risk of recapture, he was an active speaker and employed by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He traveled throughout the northern and midwestern states, speaking on behalf of the anti-slavery movement. At one point, he had to travel to Ireland and England in order to avoid being recaptured. But he never stopped speaking out.
7. He was a prolific author.
Frederick Douglass was an excellent writer and wrote several works during his lifetime, including three autobiographies: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). These are still considered today to be of unparalleled value to the historical narrative of our country.
8. He was also a publisher and an editor.
In addition to being a speaker and author of books, he published a paper for more than 16 years. He owned his own printing press and started publication of The North Star. (Remember, he taught himself to read and write!!)
9. He fought for women’s rights and desegregation in the North.
While there was no active slavery in the Northern states, segregation was rampant and African Americans were still considered second-class citizens. Douglass challenged this in his speeches and in his publications.
10. He met with President Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War—which erupted in 1861 over the issue of slavery— black soldiers were given lesser pay and non-equal treatment. Douglass met with Lincoln to advocate on behalf of the soldiers. Douglass had two sons who served in the Army and he actively recruited African Americans to fight in the Civil War. Douglass, along with many others, spoke out for equal citizenship and the emancipation (freeing) of all slaves. After the war, Douglass fought for the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery), the 14th Amendment (which granted citizenship to those born in the United States as slaves) and the 15th Amendment (which granted voting rights to men of all color—women would not gain the right to vote until the 19th Amendment in 1920).
11. There are plaques in his honor in Ireland and England.
In 2012 the Imperial Hotel in Cork, Ireland has a plaque that commemorates Douglass’ visit there. The Waterford City Hall (in Waterford, Ireland) where Douglass once gave a speech also has a plaque. And in South Kensington, London, you can visit the Nell Gwynn House, where Douglass stayed during his visit.
12. In 1965, Douglass was honored on a USPS stamp.
The stamp was designed during the Civil Rights movement by Walter DuBois Richards, and was based on a photograph provided by Douglass’ family.
13. Washington Douglass Commonwealth?
Although Washington D.C. is part of the United States, it is not actually considered a state. In November of 2016 voters passed a measure that would petition for statehood. The new state would be known as the State of Washington D.C., but the D.C. will no longer stand for District of Columbia. It will stand for Douglass Commonwealth (named after Frederick Douglass).
13. He never gave up.
Douglass worked tirelessly for justice. He served council in many prestigious positions, including legislative council member of the D.C. Territorial Government, President of Freedman’s Bank, Recorder of Deeds for D.C., Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti as well as serving under five presidents as U.S. Marshal for D.C.
14. His second marriage broke ground, too.
Sadly, Douglass’ beloved wife Anna died in 1881 of a stroke. Several years later, Douglass remarried activist Helen Pitts. Helen was white, and their interracial marriage was widely criticized. Undeterred, Douglass and Helen continued traveling and advocating on behalf of equality and justice everywhere. He died of a heart attack in 1895, at the age of 77.
Ways to Honor Douglass’ Legacy Today
Identify injustice. Ask your kids to find an issue they feel is unjust or an instance where someone has been treated unfairly. (Yes, we know this might be the time you didn’t let them eat ice cream for dinner.) Talk about the way it makes them feel, and what they can do to change it.
Write a speech. Have the kiddos write or recite a few words advocating their point of view on an issue they feel strongly about.
Read to them. Douglass knew his key to freedom was education. Spend some time reading and writing with the kids. Here’s our current list of Black History books perfect for younger kids.
Talk with Douglass. Ask your kids to imagine they have the chance to ask Frederick Douglass a question. What would it be? What do they think the answer would be?
Draw Douglass. There are a number of excellent photos you can find of Douglass online. Take a look at the ones in this post or draw a scene of Douglass giving a speech.
Find an Example. Is there a modern day Frederick Douglass your kids can identify with? Talk about the qualities that make someone a fearless leader and activist.
Visit Living History. Rochester, Ny was home to Douglass from 1847 to 1842 and it is here that he published his newspapers. It is also where you will find his grave (in the same cemetery as Susan B. Anthony). Click here to learn more about finding Frederick Douglass in Rochester. You can also visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington D.C. which hosts a birthday celebration in his honor in mid-February (this year, Feb. 17 & 18).