His exact birth date is not known, but originally born Frederick Bailey in Maryland, Frederick Douglass is supposed to have been born in February 1818 as a slave. His slave mother was apparently impregnated by a white father who remained unknown, and young Frederick spent his early life on a plantation.
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But around the age of 8, Frederick was dispatched to Baltimore to work for Hugh and Sophia Auld, where he eventually became aware that his freedom lay in personal education and enlightenment. His mistress treated him kindly and also taught him to read.
“The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud… awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn,” Douglass wrote in his autobiographies. “From that moment, I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”
But his master did not take kindly to this and warned his wife to desist from teaching young Frederick how to read, because this would arouse the interest to learn writing in him and then a self-discovery that would make him uncontrollable.
Douglass later bought Noah Webster’s spelling book when he was away from home and some white friends taught him how to read, and by the age of 13 he bought the Columbian Orator for about 50 cents – over $14 today. In this book he studied popular political speeches, poems and essays that awakened him to the ideas of the American Revolution.
Douglass later came under the control of several harsh masters when his owner died, and he finally managed to run away in 1838 at the age of 20 – changing his name from Bailey to Douglass. He joined several anti-slavery groups and later published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave in 1845 – a publication that gave him fame and set slave catchers after him, prompting him to flee the United States.
But a team of British supporters raised money to purchase his freedom in 1847, enabling him to return as a free man to the US where he took up advocacy, gender and race equality, and abolition of slavery. Douglass eventually wrote two other autobiographies, established five newspapers, and served as the US Consul General to Haiti.
He died on February 20, 1895 without really knowing his birth date, but a ledger kept by Aaron Anthony in his plantation revealed Douglass was born in 1818.
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Google and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History today celebrate Douglass 178th birthday, and Google Play Books together with Open Road Integrated Media is making Douglass’s autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave available for free download starting February 1, 2016.