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Biography of Frederick Douglass

The biography of Frederick Douglass is emblematic of the lives of slaves and former slaves. His struggle for freedom, devotion to the abolitionist cause, and lifetime battle for equality in America established him as perhaps the most important African-American leader of the 19th century.

Frederick Douglass was born in February 1818 on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. He was not sure of the his exact birth date, and he also did not know the identity of his father, who was assumed to be a white man and likely a member of the family who owned his mother.

He was originally named Frederick Bailey by his mother, Harriet Bailey. He was separated from his mother when he was young, and was raised by other slaves on the plantation.

When he was eight years old he was sent to live with a family in Baltimore, where his new mistress taught him to read and write. Young Frederick demonstrated considerable intelligence, and in his teens he was hired out to work in the shipyards of Baltimore as a caulker, a skilled position. His salary was paid to his legal owners, the Auld family.

Frederick became determined to escape to freedom. After one failed attempt, he was able to secure identification papers in 1838 stating he was a seaman. Dressed as a sailor, he boarded a train northward and successfully escaped to New York City at the age of 21.

Anna Murray, a free black woman, followed Douglass northward, and they were married in New York City.

The newlyweds moved onward to Massachusetts (adopting the last name Douglass). Douglass found work as a laborer in New Bedford.

In 1841 Douglass attended a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket. He got onstage and gave a speech which riveted the crowd. His story of life as a slave was delivered with passion, and he was encouraged to dedicate himself to speaking out against slavery in America.

He began touring the northern states, to mixed reactions. In 1843 he was nearly killed by a mob in Indiana.

Frederick Douglass was so impressive in his new career