FREDERICK DOUGLASS

(1817-1895)

THE SLAVE WHO STOLE FREEDOM

To Booker T. Washington, the teller of the tale which follows, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation brought freedom when he was but three years old. But Mr. Washington's struggles, first for an education, later in behalf of his black brethren, have endowed him with understanding and warm sympathy for Douglass, the man who, in his own generation, preceded Washington as the foremost colored citizen of the United States.

In later days, when the Underground Railway was in full operation, the slave who ran away could be sure of aid and comfort at any one of its many stations that he might find it possible to reach. But Douglass—pioneer among these dark-skinned adventurers for freedom—must needs rely almost wholly upon his own wit and courage in making his escape.


From "Frederick Douglass," by Booker T. Washington. Copyright, 1906, by George W. Jacobs & Company.

Frederick Douglass was born in the little town of Tuckahoe, in Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, supposedly in the month of February, 1817.…

Until he was seven years of age, young Fred felt few of the privations of slavery. In these childhood days he probably was as happy and carefree as the white children in the "big house." At liberty to come and go and play in the open sunshine, his early life was typical of the happier side of the negro life in slavery. What he missed of a mother's affection and a father's care was partly made up to him by the indulgent kindness of his good grandmother.

When Fred was between seven and eight years of age his grandmother was directed by her master to take her grandson to the Lloyd plantation. After the boy arrived at his new home, he was put in charge of a slave-woman for whom the only name we know is "Aunt Katy." This change brought him the first real hardship of his life. As an early consequence of it, he lost the care and guidance of his grandmother, his freedom to play, good food, and that affection which means so much to a child. When he came under the care of Aunt Katy, he began to feel for the first time the sting of unkindness. He has given a very disagreeable picture of this foster-mother. She was a woman of a hateful disposition, and treated the little stranger from Tuckahoe with extreme harshness. Her special mode of punishment was to deprive him of food. Indeed he was forced to go hungry most of the time, and if he complained was beaten without mercy. He has described his misery on one particular night. After being sent supperless to bed, his suffering very soon became more than he could bear, and when everybody else in the cabin was asleep he quietly took some corn and began to parch it before the open fireplace. While thus trying to appease his hunger by stealth, and feeling dejected and homesick, "who but my own dear mother should come in?" The friendless, hungry, and sorrowing little boy found himself suddenly caught up in her strong and protecting arms.

"I shall never forget," he says, "the indescribable expression of her countenance when I told her that Aunt Katy had said that she would starve the life out of me. There was a deep and tender glance at me, and a fiery look of indignation for Aunt Katy at the same moment, and when she took the parched corn from me and gave me, instead, a large ginger-cake, she read Aunt Katy a lecture which was never forgotten. That night I learned, as never before, that I was not only a child, but somebody's child. I was grander on my mother's knee than a king upon his throne. But my triumph was short. I dropped off to sleep and waked in the morning to find my mother gone, and myself again at the mercy of the virago in my master's kitchen."

There is no record of another meeting between mother and son. She probably died shortly afterward, because if she had been within walking distance, he certainly would have seen her again. Her memory in his child's mind was always that of a real and near personality. When he became older, and conscious of his superiority to his fellows, he was wont to say: "I am proud to attribute my love of letters, such as I may have, not to my presumed Anglo-Saxon father, but to my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother." Thus, after his mother died, his vivid imagination kept before him her image, as she appeared to him that last time he saw her, through all his struggles for a fuller and freer life for himself and his race.

With the loss of his mother and grandmother, he came more and more to realize the peculiar relation in which he and those about him stood to Colonel Lloyd and Captain Anthony. His active mind soon grasped the meaning of "master" and "slave." While still a lad, longing for a mother's care, he began to feel himself within the grasp of the curious thing that he afterward learned to know as "slavery." As he grew older in years and understanding, he came also to see what manner of man his master was. He described Captain Anthony as a "sad man." At times he was very gentle, and almost benevolent. But young Douglass was never able to forget that this same kindly slave-holder had refused to protect his cousin from a cruel beating by her overseer. The spectacle he had witnessed, when this beautiful young slave was whipped, had made a lasting and painful impression upon him. Vaguely he began to recognize the outlines of the institution which at once permitted, and to a certain degree made necessary, these cruelties. It was at this point that he began to speculate on the origin and nature of slavery. Meanwhile he became, in the course of his life on the plantation, the witness of other scenes quite as harrowing, and the memory mingled with his reflections, and embittered them.

During this time an event occurred which gave a new direction and a new impetus to the thoughts and purposes slowly taking form within him. This event was the successful escape of his Aunt Jennie and another slave. It caused a great commotion on the plantation. Nothing could happen in a Southern community that excited so many and such varied emotions as the escape of a slave from bondage: terror and revenge, hope and fear, mingled with the images of the pursued and the pursuers, with speculation in regard to the capture of the fugitive, and with prayers for his success in the minds of the slaves.…

From now on his quick and comprehending mind saw and suffered things that formerly never affected him. The hard and sometimes cruel discipline, toil from sunrise to sunset, scant food, the stifling of ambitions—all these began now to be perceived and felt, and the impression they left sank into the soul of this rebellious boy. He saw a slave killed by an overseer, on no other charge than that of being "impudent." "Crimes" of this nature were committed, as far as he could see, with impunity, and the memory of them haunted him by day and by night.

Thus far Douglass had not felt the overseer's whip. He was too small for anything except to run errands and to do light chores. Of course, he had been cuffed about by Aunt Katy; he says he seldom got enough to eat, and he suffered continually from cold, since his entire wardrobe consisted of a tow sack.…

When Fred became nine years old the most important event in his life occurred. His master determined to send him to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld, a brother of Thomas Auld. Baltimore at this time was little more than a name to young Douglass. When he reached the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Auld and felt the difference between the plantation cabin and this city home, it was to him, for a time, like living in Paradise. Mrs. Auld is described as a lady of great kindness of heart, and of a gentle disposition. She at once took a tender interest in the little servant from the plantation. He was much petted and well fed, permitted to wear boy's clothes and shoes, and for the first time in his life had a good soft bed to sleep in. His only duty was to take care of and play with Tommy Auld, which he found both an easy and agreeable task.

Young Douglass yet knew nothing about reading. A book was as much of a mystery to him as the stars at night. When he heard his mistress read aloud from the Bible, his curiosity was aroused. He felt so secure in her kindness that he had the boldness to ask her to teach him. Following her natural impulse to do kindness to others, and without, for a moment, thinking of the danger, she at once consented. He quickly learned the alphabet and in a short time could spell words of three syllables. But alas, for his young ambition! When Mr. Auld discovered what his wife had done, he was both surprised and pained. He at once stopped the perilous practice, but it was too late. The precocious young slave had acquired a taste for book learning. He quickly understood that these mysterious characters called letters were the keys to a vast empire from which he was separated by an enforced ignorance. In discussing the matter with his wife, Mr. Auld said: "If you teach him to read, he will want to know how to write, and with this accomplished, he will be running away with himself." Mr. Douglass, referring to this conversation in later years, said: "This was decidedly the first anti-slavery speech to which I had ever listened. From that moment, I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom."

During the subsequent six years that he lived in Baltimore in the home of Mr. Auld he was more closely watched than he had been before this incident, and his liberty to go and come was considerably curtailed. He declares that he was not allowed to be alone, when this could be helped, lest he would attempt to teach himself. But these were unwise precautions, since they but whetted his appetite for learning and incited him to many secret schemes to elude the vigilance of his master and mistress. Everything now contributed to his enlightenment and prepared him for that freedom for which he thirsted. His occasional contact with free colored people, his visit to the wharves where he could watch the vessels going and coming, and his chance acquaintance with white boys on the street, all became a part of his education and were made to serve his plans. He got hold of a blue-back speller and carried it with him all the time. He would ask his little white friends in the street how to spell certain words and the meaning of them. In this way he soon learned to read. The first and most important book owned by him was called the "Columbian Orator." He bought it with money secretly earned by blacking boots on the street. It contained selected passages from such great orators as Lord Chatham, William Pitt Fox, and Sheridan. These speeches were steeped in the sentiments of liberty, and were full of references to the "rights of man." They gave to young Douglass a larger idea of liberty than was included in his mere dream of freedom for himself, and in addition they increased his vocabulary of words and phrases. The reading of this book unfitted him longer for restraint. He became all ears and all eyes. Everything he saw and read suggested to him a larger world lying just beyond his reach. The meaning of the term "Abolition" came to him by a chance look at a Baltimore newspaper.

Slavery and Abolition! The distance between these two points of existence seemed to have lessened greatly after he had comprehended their meaning. "When I heard the Word 'Abolition,' I felt the matter to be my personal concern. There was hope in this word." As he afterward went about the city on his ordinary errands, or when at the wharf, even performing tasks that were not set for him to do, he was like another being. That word "Abolition" seemed to sing itself into his very soul, and when he permitted his thoughts to dwell on the possibilities that it opened to him, he was buoyed up with joyous expectations. He tried to find out something from everybody. He learned to write by copying letters on fences and walls and challenging his white playmates to find his mistakes; and at night, when no one suspected him of being awake, he copied from an old copy-book of his young friend Tommy. Before he had formulated any plans for freedom for himself, he learned the important trick of writing "free passes" for runaway slaves.

Notwithstanding his progress in gaining knowledge, his considerate master and kind mistress, his loving companion in Tommy, his good home, food, and clothes, he was not happy or contented. None of these things could stifle his yearning to be free. He has aptly described his own feelings at this time in speaking of Mrs. Auld: "Poor lady, she did not understand my trouble, and I could not tell her. Nature made us friends, but slavery made us enemies. She aimed to keep me ignorant, but I resolved to know, although knowledge only increased my misery. My feelings were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received. It was slavery, not its mere incidents, I hated. Their feeding and clothing me well could not atone for taking my liberty from me. The smiles of my master could not remove the deep sorrow that dwelt in my young bosom. We were both victims of the same overshadowing evil—she as mistress, I as slave. I will not censure her too harshly.…"

After Douglass learned how to write with tolerable ease, he began to copy from the Bible and the Methodist hymn books at night when he was supposed to be asleep. He always regarded this religious experience as the most important part of his education; it had the effect, not only of enlarging his mind, but also of restraining his impatience, and softening a disposition that was growing hard and bitter with brooding over the disadvantages suffered by himself and his race. He greatly needed something that would help him to look beyond his bondage and encourage him to hope for ultimate freedom.

While he was undergoing this, to him, novel religious experience, and while he was gradually being adjusted to the situation in which he found himself, there came one of those dreaded changes in the fortunes of slavemasters that made the status of the slave painfully uncertain. His real master, Captain Anthony, died, and this event, complicated with some family quarrel, resulted in Douglass being recalled from Baltimore to the plantation.…

A man named Edward Covey, living at Bayside, at no great distance from the campground where Thomas Auld was converted, had a wide reputation for "breaking in unruly niggers." Covey was a "poor white" and a farm renter. To this man Douglass was hired out for a year. In the month of January, 1834, he started for his new master, with his little bundle of clothes. From what we have already seen of this sensitive, thoughtful young slave of seventeen years, it is not difficult to understand his state of mind. Up to this time he had had a comparatively easy life. He had seldom suffered hardships such as fell to the lot of many slaves whom he knew. To quote his own words: "I was now about to sound profounder depths in slave-life. Starvation made me glad to leave Thomas Auld's, and the cruel lash made me dread to go to Covey's." Escape, however, was impossible. The picture of the "slave-driver," painted in the lurid colors that Mr. Douglass's indignant memories furnished him, shows the dark side of slavery in the South. During the first six weeks he was with Covey he was whipped, either with sticks or cowhides, every week. With his body one continuous ache from his frequent floggings, he was kept at work in field or woods from the dawn of day until the darkness of night. He says: "Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me in body, soul, and spirit. The overwork and the cruel chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with the ever-growing and soul-devouring thought, 'I am a slave—a slave for life, a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom,' had done their worst."

He confesses that at one time he was strongly tempted to take his own life and that of Covey. Finally, his sufferings of body and soul became so great that further endurance seemed impossible. While in this condition he determined upon the daring step of returning to his master, Thomas Auld, in order to lay before him the story of abuse. He felt sure that, if for no other reason than the protection of property from serious impairment, his master would interfere in his behalf. He even expected sympathy and assurances of future protection. In all this he was grievously disappointed. Auld not only refused sympathy and protection, but would not even listen to his complaints, and immediately sent him back to his dreaded master to face the added penalty of running away. The poor, lone boy was plunged into the depths of despair. A feeling that he had been deserted by both God and man took possession of him.

Covey was lying in wait for him, knowing full well that he must return as defenseless as he went away. As soon as Douglass came near the place where the white man was hiding, the latter made a leap at Fred for the purpose of tying him for a flogging. But Douglass escaped and took to the woods, where he concealed himself for a day and a night. His condition was desperate. He felt that he could not endure another whipping, and yet there seemed to him no alternative. His first impulse was to pray, but he remembered that Covey also prayed. Convinced, at length, that there was no appeal but to his own courage, he resolved to go back and face whatever must come to him. It so happened that it was a Sunday morning and, much to his surprise, he met Covey, who was on his way to church, and who, when he saw the runaway, greeted him with a pleasant smile. "His religion," says Douglass, "prevented him from breaking the Sabbath, but not from breaking my bones on any other day of the week."

On Monday morning Douglass was up early, half hoping that he would be permitted to resume his work without punishment. Covey was astir betimes, too, and had laid aside his Sunday mildness of manner. His first business was to carry out his fixed purpose of whipping the young runaway. In the meantime Fred had likewise fully decided upon a course of action. He was ready to submit to any kind of work, however hard or unreasonable, but determined to defend himself against any attempt at another flogging. In the cold passion that took possession of him, the slave-boy became utterly reckless of consequences, reasoning to himself that the limit of suffering at the hands of this relentless slave-breaker had already been reached. He was resolved to fight and did fight. He began his morning work in peace, obeying promptly every order from his master, and while he was in the act of going up to the stable-loft for the purpose of pitching down some hay, he was caught and thrown by Covey, in an attempt to get a slip knot about his legs. Douglass flew at Covey's throat recklessly, hurled his antagonist to the ground, and held him firmly. Blood followed the nails of the infuriated young slave. He scarcely knew how to account for his fighting strength, and his daredevil spirit so dumfounded the master that he gaspingly said: "Are you going to resist me, you young scoundrel?" "Yes, sir," was the quick reply.

Finding himself baffled, Covey called for assistance. His cousin Hughes came to aid him, but as he was attempting to put a noose over the unruly slave's foot, Douglass promptly gave him a blow in the stomach which at once put him out of the combat and he fled. After Hughes had been disabled, Covey called on first one and then another of his slaves, but each refused to assist him. Finding himself fairly outdone by his angry antagonist, Covey quit; with the discreet remark: "Now, you young scoundrel, you go to work; I would not have whipped you half so hard if you had not resisted."

Douglass had thus won his first victory, and was never again threatened or flogged by his master. The effect of this encounter, as far as he himself was concerned, was to increase his self-respect, and to give him more courage for the future. He said that, "when a slave cannot be flogged, he is more than half free." To the other slaves he became a hero, and Covey was not anxious to advertise his complete failure to break in this "unruly nigger." It speaks well for the natural dignity and good sense of young Douglass that he neither boasted of his triumph nor did anything rash as a consequence of it, as might have been expected from a boy of his age and spirit.…


[A carefully planned attempt at escape failed dismally, but he remained undaunted.]


Ever since the first trouble with Auld, he had been pushing his plans to redeem his pledge to himself that he would run away on Monday, September 3, 1838. These were anxious days, and many small details had to be mastered. He must carefully avoid anything in manner or word which could excite the slightest suspicion. He had to test the fidelity of a number of free colored people whose aid, in secret ways, was very essential to him. Who these persons were has never been revealed, and, in fact, it was not until many years after emancipation that Mr. Douglass disclosed to the public how he succeeded in making his daring escape. "Murder itself," he says, "was not more severely and surely punished in the State of Maryland than aiding and abetting the escape of a slave."

Young Douglass's flight had no outward semblance of dramatic incident or thrilling episode, and yet, as he modestly says, "the courage that could risk betrayal and the bravery which was ready to encounter death, if need be, in pursuit of freedom, were features in the undertaking. My success was due to address rather than to courage, to good luck rather than bravery. My means of escape were provided by the very means which were making laws to hold and bind me more securely to slavery."

By the laws of the State of Maryland, every free colored person was required to have what were called "free papers," which must be renewed frequently, and, of course, a fee was always charged for renewal. They contained a full and minute description of the holder, for the purpose of identification. This device, in some measure, defeated itself, since more than one man could be found to answer the general description; hence many slaves could get away by impersonating the real owners of these passes, which were returned by mail after the borrowers had made good their escape. To use these papers in this manner was hazardous both for the fugitives and for the lenders. Not every freeman was willing to put in jeopardy his own liberty that another might be free. It was, however, often done, and the confidence that it necessitated was seldom betrayed. Douglass had not many friends among the free colored people in Baltimore who resembled him sufficiently to make it safe for him to use their papers. Fortunately, however, he had one who owned a "sailor's protection," a document describing the holder and certifying to the fact that he was a "free American sailor." This "protection" did not describe its bearer very accurately. But it called for a man very much darker than himself, and a close examination would have betrayed him at the start. In the face of all these conditions young Douglass Was relying upon something besides a dubious written passport. This something was his desperate courage. He had learned to act the part of a freeman so well that no one suspected him of being a slave. He had early acquired the habit of studying human nature. As he grew to understand men, he no longer dreaded them. No one knew better than he the kind of human nature that he had to deal with in this perilous undertaking. He knew the speech, manner, and behavior that would excite suspicion; hence he avoided asking for a ticket at the railway station, because this would subject him to examination. He so managed that just as the train started he jumped on, his bag being thrown after him by some one in waiting. He knew that scrutiny of him in a crowded car en route would be less exacting than at the station. He had borrowed a sailor's shirt, tarpaulin, cap, and black cravat, tied in true sailor fashion, and he acted the part of an "old salt" so perfectly that he excited no suspicion. When the conductor came to collect his fare and inspected his "free papers," Douglass, in the most natural manner, said that he had none, but promptly showed his "sailor's protection," which the railway official merely glanced at and passed on without further question. Twice on the trip he thought he was detected. Once when his car stood opposite a south-bound train, Douglass observed a well-known citizen of Baltimore, who knew him well, sitting where he could see him distinctly. At another time, while still in Maryland, he was noticed by a man who had met him frequently at the shipyards. In neither of these cases, however, was he interfered with or molested. When he got into the free State of Pennsylvania, he felt more joy than he dared express. He had by his cool temerity and address passed every sentinel undetected, and no slave, to his knowledge, he afterward said, ever got away from bondage on so narrow a margin of safety.