This icon of Frederick Douglass was commissioned by the Historical Society of New Bedford, MA and is made from some of the floorboards of the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, the safe house that Douglass first gained his freedom! Escaped slaves including Douglass walked on these boards, so it was with great humility that the artist accepted this challenge.
In 1838 Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland and fled to freedom in New Bedford, Mass. He became a prominent abolitionist, author, public speaker, and newspaper publisher. Following the Emancipation Proclamation he continued to work for voting rights for blacks and women’s suffrage. He was the most photographed man of the 19thcentury.
He was born Frederick Bailey in 1818 to a mother with Native American ancestry and a father of African descent. Once he reached freedom in the North, he changed his name to Douglass. At the age of six, he was separated from his grandmother when sent to another farm. With the help of the wife of one of his slave owners, he learned the alphabet. He taught himself to read and write. As word spread that he was teaching other slaves to read, he was transferred to another farmer, Edward Covey, a brutal slave owner; Douglass was regularly whipped by Covey. At the age of 20, Douglass made his way to Baltimore, then to Wilmington, Delaware, then to Philadelphia and finally to New York City, where he sent for Anna Murray, a young woman he had met while she was working as a domestic in Baltimore. They were married only a few days after he had escaped slavery.
Right after the wedding, the couple took a steamer to Newport, Rhode Island where they were met by Quakers who arranged their journey to New Bedford. For a year they stayed with Polly and Nathan Johnson, prominent black abolitionists whose home was part of the underground railroad. They then moved to their own home. They had 5 children. While in New Bedford, Douglass became interested in the abolitionist movement by reading William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, as well as by the fervent abolitionist activity taking place in New Bedford. After a sermon he preached at his AME Church, he was invited to speak on Nantucket where in 1841 his impassioned address launched his career as a much sought after anti-slavery speaker. He first traveled the abolitionist circuit with William Lloyd Garrison throughout the Northeast. He launched his own newspaper, The North Star, in 1847 and continued to campaign tirelessly against slavery across the United States. He even was invited to speak in England, and met with Abraham Lincoln in an effort to convince the President to recruit black men to join and be paid for their service in the Union Army.
Following the Civil War he advocated for the civil rights of the newly liberated slaves through support of equal economic and social opportunities and against lynching and the “Jim Crow’ rules which followed the failure of Reconstruction. He was one of the few men to attend the first Women’s Rights Convention in upstate New York 1848. He wrote his best selling autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave in 1845, and a second in 1855, My Bondage and My Freedom. Both helped in the cause of emancipation as they described his own first hand account of the horrors of slavery. Just three years before he died, he completed, in 1890, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Shortly after making a speech at a conference on women’s suffrage, he died of a heart attack. His funeral was held at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC. He is buried in Mount Hope cemetery in Rochester, NY next to his first wife, Anna, who died in 1882.