“A Narrative of the Life, Bondage, and Freedom of Frederick Douglass”
In Talbot County, Maryland was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around the year 1818. His heritage would become one of the sticking points of his life for biographers, contemporaries, and Douglass himself. He knew his mother’s name was Harriet Bailey but was raised primarily by his grandmother due to the dehumanization the African American family within the American chattel slave system. Douglass laments the fact that he had little to no interaction with his mother Harriet as he explains the impropriety of the black family within the slave system. In his words, “It is deemed a foolish whim for a slave-mother to manifest concern to see her children.” (My Bondage and My Freedom) Douglass was also without a father that he knew of but he was aware that his paternal heritage was Anglo. There were whispers throughout his upbringing that his white slave master was his father but this was not confirmed neither did Douglass care to believe this. Death ended any chance he could have had with a substantial relationship with his mother while he was only seven and the atrocities of slavery made any other family bonds fractured at best.
Early in Douglass’ life, remnants of his future brilliance manifested in several ways. He had an incredible memory and at young age developed deep convictions for justice and the power of education. In his most read life account (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass) he recognizes being sent to Baltimore from his birth plantation as the event that “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.” (Narrative) For Douglass, learning how to read amidst an era where slaves could be whipped and killed for this ability became the key to freedom. Therefore, as early as the age of eight he knew that being a slave did not define him more than being a man and child of God. Douglass experienced the freedom of his mind many years before his body was emancipated as he became literate and taught other slaves along the way. However, while he grew in knowledge, wisdom, and self-dignity the oppression of his day fought him at every turn to break him mentally and physically into submission. He recounts the watershed moment of his slave experience, when he was about 17, as his time under the foul “care” of a Mr. Covey who he was sent to because of Covey’s reputation as the “nigger breaker.” Douglass admits that Covey’s beatings and mental manipulation succeeded in “breaking” him. Nonetheless, it was a fist fight with Mr. Covey that “rekindled..the smouldering embers of liberty” within Douglass and inspired his successful escape to freedom in 1838.
As a free man he officially dropped the remnants of slavery from his surname by dispensing of the names Augustus, Washington, and Bailey and going by Fredrick Douglass. He would get married and have four children with the woman he was engaged to while still a slave Anna Murray, who would die in 1882. From 1838 until his death, Douglass would both figuratively and literally rewrite the narrative of “how a man was made a slave” and “how a slave was made a man” by debunking all myths and exceeding all expectations for the worth of the black man in America. As a man of Christian faith his story cannot be told without mention of the providence of God and his understanding and application of the biblical narrative. As an accomplished speaker and writer, he galvanized an anti-slavery movement and took part in women’s suffrage efforts that moved a nation to confront its sins. As a political figure he critiqued and conversed with presidents such as Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. His name was praised by thousands, but just as many black and white followers criticized him. Especially, for his second marriage to Helen Pitts in 1884 a white women’s rights activist. Frederick Douglass’ life and time here on earth ended February 20, 1895 but I believe Christians have much left to learn from him today. Therefore, I echo the words of James M’Cune Smith who helped edit Douglass’ second autobiography in saying
“I feel joy in introducing to you my brother, who has rent his own bonds, and who, in his every relation—as public man, as husband and as a father—is such as does honor to the land which gave him birth.”
In this spirit we at the Kingdom Diversity Initiative at SEBTS want to explore and introduce to some the story of faith, bondage, and excellence of our brother Frederick Douglass. We will share his narrative and writings and their implications for our contemporary moment through podcast, quotes, and blogs throughout the month of February.
Douglass, Frederick, and William L. Andrews. The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
- My Bondage and My Freedom
- Life and Times of Frederick Douglass