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Positively Speaking: Frederick Douglas

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By Toby Moore

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of man named Toby Moore
Toby Moore

Born into slavery, Frederick Douglas was driven to seek freedom at an early age and escape the bonds of slavery, and find a path to liberation.

He found his path when sent to a new plantation where he learned the criminal act of reading, an action strictly against the law for slaves. The enslaver’s wife, who treated Douglas like an adopted child, secretly taught him to read the Bible.

He developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He devised clever schemes to access the books he desired. He would trick white school children into letting him glimpse at their schoolbooks, and when the opportunity presented itself, he would hide books away, studying in secret.

He was sent to Baltimore to become a laborer, where he learned the trade of ship caulking, working on the boats that came in and out of the harbor.

Despite his limited financial freedom, Douglas could keep some money and saved enough to buy his first book, “The Columbian Orator.”

This book, a collection of speeches, would change Douglas’ life forever. He did not simply read the book but memorized it from beginning to end, reciting its speeches for hours, pretending to speak in front of large audiences.

Desperate to be free, Douglas devised a plan with his future wife, Anna Murie, to escape to the North. Sailors traveled considerably, and he had papers to certify he worked on the docks. His papers and some money from Anna were all the cover he needed.

Along the way, he married Anna and eventually settled in Massachusetts. Though he was now free, technically, he was only an escaped slave. Continually fearing capture, he found solace in the abolitionist movement and discovered an entire network of abolitionists through a newspaper called “The Liberator.”

Douglas was thrilled to attend a meeting held by the American Anti-Slavery Society. As the only escaped slave in attendance, he was asked to share his thoughts with the crowd. It was his first time as a speaker, but he was well-practiced. For two hours, they listened intently, hanging on his every word, energized by the passion and power of his speech.

The Anti-Slavery Society recruited him and embarked on a six-month tour of many states, electrifying audiences wherever he went.

Douglas soon learned his owner knew of his whereabouts and received a tip that slave catchers were searching for him; he fled to England for two years.

During this time, his friends in the United States purchased his freedom. He re-entered the United States as a free man, ready to continue his fight for equality through his powerful speeches and advocacy.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president, and the subsequent secession of the South, marked a turning point in the fight for freedom.

The Civil War presented new challenges for Douglas, who was not a soldier or a politician, but still one of the most influential figures of his day.

Through Douglas’ association with the militant abolitionist John Brown, Douglas became convinced that the only way to unseat the institution of slavery was by force.

He was deeply disappointed that the United States War Department prevented African-Americans from serving in the military and was encouraged in 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation, which allowed African-Americans to fight as soldiers in the Army for their freedom.

Douglas soon traveled to Washington D.C. and was invited to a mutually respectful meeting with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House, where he was initially critical but learned to embrace Lincoln as the only president that respected the rights of Black people.

Determined to help his people become free, Douglas convinced crowds of young Black men to join the fight, famously stating, “He who would be free themselves must strike the blow!”

By the war’s end, African-Americans comprised 10% of the Union’s fighting force, helping to end the war.

Frederick Douglas’ remarkable intelligence and leadership challenged beliefs about the inherent superiority of one race over another. Douglas always remembered his goal to achieve freedom and equality for all and insisted that the Civil War was about the struggle of a nation to live up to its creed of ALL BEING CREATED EQUAL.

His legacy continues to inspire generations to come.

Toby Moore is a columnist, the star of Emmy-nominated “A Separate Peace,” and the CEO of Cubestream Inc.

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