Society

Frederick Douglass: The great anti-slavery voice

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Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. PHOTO | COURTESY

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Summary

  • Escaping to freedom in 1838, at the age of 20, and needing a new name, in part as a declaration of a reinvented self, in part for the practical necessity of eluding slave-catchers, he became Frederick Douglass.
  • Douglass’s new name was as much of a rejection of his slave name as was Malcom X’s rejection of his birth name, Little, but in this case the chosen name denoted a presence, not an absence.
  • The name he chose inscribed him with a cultural tradition that he was forced to inherit and chose to remake.

Last week I mentioned Frederick Douglass in connection with the origins of Black History Month.

On Sunday February 14, 2021, after a project which was started 15 years ago in 2006, members of Monroe County community gathered to witness the renaming of Rochester International Airport, now known as Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport, in honour of the great American abolitionist. A small ceremony was held in honour of Rochester’s most famous abolitionist on what would have been his 203rd birthday.

Speaking at the ceremony, Rev Julius Jackson who initiated the renaming project, said, “I am blown away. It’s always nice to see dreams deferred being realised, not being denied. I am going to take a few moments to soak it all in.” After an online petition received thousands of signatures, Monroe County lawmakers approved legislation last summer, while all the other madness was going on, to begin the process of changing the name. Another team is working on bringing 13 statues of Douglass to the airport.

Carvin Eison, project leader said that keeping Douglass’s name alive is keeping Frederick Douglass alive. “He is still providing leadership. He is still pulling focus. He is still doing so many exceptional things.”

The ceremony on Sunday was held near the Douglass monument which was recently placed in a more visible location at the corner of South Avenue and Robinson Drive.

But who exactly was Frederick Douglass? Frederick Douglass, who has been called the greatest American of the nineteenth century, was born in February 1818 in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, to his mother Harriet Bailey who herself was of mixed race which likely included a cocktail of Native American, African, as well as European stock. He claimed that his mother, who was a slave, gave him the name Frederick Augustine Washington Bailey.

His father was almost certainly white, and it is thought the culprit was the master on the plantation where his mother worked. As was common amongst black people in the day, the exact date of his birth was not recorded. Separated from his mother at infancy, he went to live with his maternal grandmother, who was also a slave, and his maternal grandfather who was free.

At the age of six he was separated from his grandparents and moved to the Wye House plantation where Aaron Anthony worked as the overseer. After Anthony died in 1826, Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld, who sent him to his brother, Hugh Auld in Baltimore, where slaves were treated almost like free men. Lucretia was essential in creating what Douglass was as she shaped his experiences and had a special interest in the boy from the time he was a child, wanting to give him a better life.

From the day he arrived, Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia, made sure that Douglass was well fed and clothed and that he slept on a bed with sheets and a blanket. Later, when Douglass was 12, she began teaching him the alphabet. Hugh Auld disapproved of the tutoring, fearing that literacy would encourage slaves to desire freedom.

Under the influence of her husband, Sophia eventually stopped teaching Douglas altogether, hiding all potential reading material, including the Bible, from him, but the seed had already been planted.

At the age of 19, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman, in Baltimore, who was about five years older than him. Her free status encouraged him to believe in his own freedom. Murray supported his efforts financially.

Escaping to freedom in 1838, at the age of 20, and needing a new name, in part as a declaration of a reinvented self, in part for the practical necessity of eluding slave-catchers, he became Frederick Douglass (he added an extra “S” for distinction) in honour of a character in a Walter Scott poem. He also formalised his date of birth as 14 February, because as he was later to write in his memoirs, he remembered his mother referring to him as “my little Valentine.”

Douglass’s new name was as much of a rejection of his slave name as was Malcom X’s rejection of his birth name, Little, but in this case the chosen name denoted a presence, not an absence. The name he chose inscribed him with a cultural tradition that he was forced to inherit and chose to remake.

In 1839, he got a job as a labourer, in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he made a name speaking at a local church. Having learned to read by literally buying words, Douglass had the intense power of language, of double meanings of individual words and irony was ingrained in him.

Douglass joined several organisations in New Bedford attending many abolitionist meetings and subscribed to the abolitionist Lloyd Garrison’s weekly newspaper, The Liberator. In 1843, Douglass joined other speakers in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundreds’ Conventions” project, a six months’ tour at meeting halls, at which he was often accosted by slavery supporters.

Between 1845 and1847, Douglass travelled extensively in Ireland and Britain where he gave many lectures in churches on abolition of slavery. Douglass remarked in England he was treated “not as a colour, but as a man.”

Returning to America in 1847, Douglass continued with his anti-slavery crusade, becoming an early advocate against school segregation and for women’s rights.

During the American Civil War, Douglass and the abolitionists argued that since the aim of the war was to end slavery, African-Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom.

Douglas conferred with President Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage. On 1 January 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate-held territories.

While American slaves were beginning the long road to freedom, we in Kenya were just beginning our 70 years of subjugation and discrimination. Both nations have come a long way, but the journey is not yet over.